|Norman Lock: THE SLEEP INSTITUTE|
"It has rooted in you," the therapist had pronounced after ‘the incident.’ "Africa has."
He leaned back in his chair and swiveled towards the window. Outside, a cloud very like a camel was roaming the blue Sahara. (Ha!)
"And may I point out that your Africa is not the real Africa."
No … but it has been a cherished illusion, dangerous—who knows?—to challenge.
He swung round in his chair to face me.
"I am sending you to the Sleep Institute. There they will change your dreamscape, the pattern of your unconscious life. You will be given a new imagery. Your stories will radically alter and with them your personality, which is odd. Unattractive. The Sleep Institute is the place for you."
"No hydrotherapy! No electroshock! No sheep parts in yogurt!"
I had suffered them in Tunis.
"You must not let yourself become hysterical," he warned.
Hysteria—a major theme in my work.
"I should like to be someone else," I said.
"Someone other than I am."
"Dr. Griffin has a serum."
The Invisible Man enthralled me, too. But enough of that!
"He has developed a pharmacopoeia of sleep," the therapist said wistfully.
Then he closed his eyes and smiled.
There were six resident patients at the Sleep Institute: an insomniac, a girl with night-terrors, a sleep-walker, Myra, a young man also afflicted with narcolepsy, and me. I felt ordinary among such exotic complaints. Mine—I knew—was frivolous. My dreams had come to bore me; they distracted my search for new fictional ground. No more than that. I was never in danger of losing my mind, only my narrative impetus. Having deliberately broken the thread, I was desperate to find another. I had gone to savage lengths for my art—even to having slashed my wrists. (Though I had taken care not to slash too deeply. It was enough that blood flowed, never mind how much.) But my fellow patients suffered keenly, in body and mind. I was like a man who goes for a time to live among lepers with nothing but chapped lips to recommend him.
Gordon came to visit.
"How is it with you, Norman?" he asked.
"I have a sleep disorder. I dream, I dream of Africa."
"For you." He presented me with a bottle of gin—Bombay, in honor of my late fiction, which had made much of it.
"The Sapphire bottle!" I cried, kissing his hands. "Thank you, dear Gordon. My thirst –"
He understands everything.
"Is considerable. Is –"
"Your little weakness," he said generously.
I drank—to him, to the Sleep Institute’s desirable nursing staff. To Myra, my sweetheart, asleep in the blind-slatted shadows of the solarium. The good Bombay seeped into my consciousness on its way down to my inner-being, which thirsted for consolation. For numbing.
"‘Seeped’ is a good word, I think."
"A very good word, Norman."
I thought of how Africa had seeped into the landscape of my imagination, the rich loam of it, now in need of irrigation. I irrigated it—with the "Queen's Own."
"All because of Hemingway’s lions and the golden beach," I complained. "My youth was spoiled; and now, in middle-age, my mind is lost between Nairobi and Mombasa, with blind Borges for my safari guide." I scolded them and all other writers of fiction whose voices are undeniable.
"You are feverish," said Gordon, laying a rough hand atop my head as if to bless me. "You will make your mark on our national literature," he said affably, as he walked to the door. "Never fear."
"Stay with me, Gordon!"
"I have a lecture to deliver at NYU: ‘The Art of Fiction.’"
"It is hard to be a writer," I said with unbecoming self-pity.
He turned towards me.
"One needs only to write: one little word followed by another."
He walked two adjoining fingers through the air in demonstration.
"Subject matter eludes," I confessed, much ashamed.
"Pah! You are in the Sleep Institute!"
"I have a sleep disorder!"
I grew defensive. I suspected he understood that I was staying at the Institute under false pretenses. I did not want him to despise me. My esteemed editor.
"In just this one room, I see a subject worthy of your fiction."
He glanced slyly at my sweetheart.
"A subject that is also an object—of desire!" he observed.
We walked over to Myra and admired her sleeping body.
"Lovely!" he said, taking off his hat. The one with the pert feather.
"Yes," I agreed, stroking her cheek, the little part of it that was visible beneath her tumbled-down hair.
"Now I really must go."
He returned his hat to his head, opened the solarium door, and left me to my own devices.
"Next time, bring me a cigar!" I shouted after him. "A Monte Cristo!"
I sat and waited for Myra to wake so that we might resume our affair, interrupted by her narcolepsy.
The sapphire light glinting in the gin bottle entranced me!
"Stevens’ Blue Guitar is nothing next to this," I said to myself.
I left Myra’s room very late that night. Except for the fluorescent hum, the patient snores, and the ping-pong of Mr. Stanislaw, the Sleep Institute was silent. He was in the recreation room, playing himself. It looked to me a lonely and exhausting way to pass the slow, dull hours till morning. Stosh, as we called him, was then the only insomniac in residence.
"Join me?" he asked with a look of entreaty.
Though I pitied him, I was worn out. "To a frazzle" as Anne would say. (Forget Anne!) Myra had been awake for a full two hours, and I had made the most of it.
"Another time," I said and saw the horror in his eyes. The bleared eyes in the gray face. The horror of the perpetually conscious. The terrible burden of lucidity, as Camus would say. (Forget him, too!)
I left the recreation room and tiptoed down the tiled corridor towards my room.
Ping Pong Ping Pong Ping Pong Ping Pong Ping Pong
"Poor Mr. Stanislaw!"
"Your treatment of Myra’s narcolepsy is highly unorthodox," Dr. Griffin said dryly. "Not to mention clumsy."
I gave him my most ingenuous look.
"Captured on video," he said with what I considered unprofessional relish. "And now part of the Institute’s permanent record. You are not a particularly adept lover, Norman."
I accused him of voyeurism. And envy.
"This is a laboratory," he said sternly, "not a love nest! Your behavior is entirely inappropriate for a clinical study. I don’t care if the woman is asleep more often than she’s awake!"
"I don’t like that sneering," I told him.
"Narcolepsy is a serious disorder," he continued reasonably, if self-importantly. "Under its influence, Myra cannot be said to know her own mind."
I told him we were fond of each other. I told him that our affair, such as it was, did no harm. He accused me of taking unfair advantage of a woman whose mind was, in some measure, disturbed.
"Our patients are unhappy," he said. "Their reason hangs always in the balance."
"Mr. Stanislaw needs another insomniac to keep him company at night."
"I wish you wouldn’t meddle in my sleep protocols!" he snapped.
A silence ensued during which he collected himself.
"It is dangerous, I think, for Mr. Stanislaw to try to play ping-pong by himself," I suggested.
"You are a writer?"
"Yes …?" I said cautiously.
"What do you write?"
"Have you written any literature lately?"
"Not lately, no."
"I have something of possible interest to a writer."
I nodded to show him I was willing to hear more.
"A serum that will enable the user to enter another’s dreams. I imagine a writer would find that fruitful of discovery."
"Has it been tested?"
"Not as yet on a human."
"On a dog."
"Did the dog’s writing noticeably improve?"
Much annoyed, he pushed back his chair, stood, and paced the consulting room floor. I allowed him this show of displeasure, understanding our human need for drama. I had stung his vanity and must wait patiently for the sting to subside.
"Won’t you please try my serum?" he wheedled, having stopped his pacing to beg a favor of me.
"Not until I’ve had a chance to talk to the dog," I said.
"I dreamed you made me pregnant," said Myra.
I did not much care for her dream, but said nothing and continued to stroke her hair—her very long blonde hair.
"We were in the kitchen. I told you the baby was overdone. ‘The baby’s overdone,’ I said. ‘It’s been in the oven too long.’ I opened the oven door and pulled out the baby. It was hard to do: it was a very small oven—a child’s play oven—and the baby was tight inside it. I managed to pull it out, but the baby was burnt to a crisp. Its head, burnt off. I could see the genitals, but I don’t remember if it was a boy or a girl."
"That’s a strange dream," I said noncommittally.
I wanted nothing more to do with psychoanalysis. Those of you who have read my African fiction know that Sigmund Freud figures prominently among the dramatis personae. He, of course, would have made much of Myra’s dream. He would have pounced on it with glee.
Instead, I allowed my hand to slip quietly down from her hair to her breast and take up its stroking once again.
"Dreams mean nothing," I lied.
She smiled a radiant smile, then fell asleep.
I removed the bandaid I had stuck over the tiny lens of the surveillance camera, smiled—I hoped winningly—at Dr. Griffin, and left Myra to her dreams.
I had looked up from my book to see him framed in the doorway of the solarium. (The book? Cronopios and Famas. I name it for verisimilitude’s sake. It is also true that I happened to be reading this excellent little work of fiction, Cortázar’s amusing conceits, before joining my fellow inmates for breakfast.)
Gordon walked robustly towards me, through lozenges of sunlight patterning the golden floor.
"‘Golden floor’ is good," he said, reading my mind. "‘Lozenges of sunlight’ is also good. You were wise to resist ‘splashing.’ ‘Splashing through lozenges of sunlight’ would have been fatally Swinburnian. Hats off to you!"
He doffed his.
"Did you remember my cigar?"
He handed me it. A Monte Cristo.
"I had hoped to see her awake," he said disappointed, nodding at Myra, who was sleeping on the couch, despite the Havanaise playing over the Institute’s PA. "Is she often like this?"
"It is her disorder," I answered—"the reason she’s here."
"That is a Stefano Scarampella violin."
Gordon knows everything!
The door to the solarium opened once again. A pretty redhead in a black negligee drifted across the room and left by the other door.
"She is sleep-walking," I explained.
"Your fictions are damned attractive!"
"Then this, too, is a fiction?"
I hoped it might be otherwise.
"Norman, all utterance, all perception, is it not all of it a fiction?"
As if to confirm his assertion, Gordon grew vague, by which I mean he faded, by slow degree, until I wondered if life itself must not become untenable in a man so apparently lacking in substance.
(Quite a good-looking man, I thought, even at half-strength.)
"Going so soon, Gordon?"
"I am giving a lecture in Terre Haute: ‘The Imaginary Self.’"
"Your life is very full," I observed enviously.
"Alas, it is not my own."
"The story of all our lives," I said pithily.
"When may we expect a new piece for The Quarterly, Norman?"
"I understood The Quarterly to be defunct?"
"I am investigating a new publishing method. Dr. Griffin’s research into Dream Transmission is promising."
"A dream magazine …"
"No paper, ink—no postage. No inconvenient customs declarations. Nothing between the original thought and the unconscious mind of the subscriber. Think of it, Norman!" He put on his hat. "And now I really must go."
He grew atmospheric. His brain—his mind (always subtle!) persisted a moment beyond the body’s dissolution—a swarm of radiant particles—until it, too, reached the vanishing point.
"Goodbye, Gordon!" I called into the Void, which closed after him with something like a bang.
I began to feel ill at ease.
"Myra, wake up!" I thought.
She did not.
I repeated it—this time aloud, into her delicately shaped ear.
She took no notice.
"If this is a fiction, why does she not wake?"
"Not every fictional character is answerable to its author, who is, himself, a fictional character," Gordon archly remarked from a lectern in Terra Haute.
On the ledge outside the solarium, five-stories up from the street, the sleep-walking redhead was knocking on the window in her filmy black negligee. (Or, better: "in her filmy black negligee roughly handled by the wind.") I opened the window and helped her inside.
"I’m sorry if I woke you," I said, not entirely sure of my responsibility but pleasantly aroused by the pressure of her hand in mine.
"My name is Lulu," she said.
"Of course it is," I smiled, delighted.
Poor Mr. Stanislaw died of a coronary embolism before reaching the second, ineluctable term in the syllogism. Out of pity, I supplied it for him:
Ping-pong is a syllogism without conclusion, I thought. By its strict, binomial repetition, it generates no new term. In dying, Stosh gave it one.
(Mocking laughter from Terre Haute.)
What of the other residents lodging at the Sleep Institute? Myra, you’ve met; also Lulu, whom I would have been pleased to know better. But her sleep-walking made me nervous. I did not want her drifting spectrally in and out my consciousness; and the thought of her standing over me during my unconscious hours (with a knife, perhaps, purloined from the kitchen) made me shiver! There is something deranged about a sleep-walker—don’t you find it so? Lady Macbeth certainly became one at the end of her life. No, as seductive a young woman as I found Lulu to be (with that coppery hair!), I concentrated my amorous attentions in Myra. (There was another narcoleptic there at the time: a man in his twenties. As I never saw him awake, he plays no part in this story.) I ought, however, mention the girl with night-terrors. But first, I want to tell you about the dog.
The dog’s name was Pavlov. It was thought by some to be the canine reincarnation of the great Russian behaviorist himself, whose work had led to the principles of modern advertising as formulated by John Watson in the 1920’s. But the real reason the dog was so named was its slobber. Its slobber was ample.
I went to Pavlov’s room one afternoon, intending to sound it out on Griffin’s dream serum. I had with me a box of Liver-Snaps and the remains of the Bombay Gin. (The Liver-Snaps were a conciliatory offering; the gin—well, it was a rainy afternoon, Myra was asleep, and I was melancholy.)
"Can you tell me, please, about your experience with Dr. Griffin’s serum?"
"I entered a dream of Dr. Griffin’s, which I didn’t understand, and then one of a white lab rat, which I didn’t understand either. Then I woke with the disconcerting sensation of not knowing who I was."
"Do you remember anything about the doctor’s dream?"
"A bedroom. Lozenges of sunlight and a golden floor. A girl with red hair wobbling across the room on a tight-rope. The tight-rope suspended above the bed. The girl dressed in a filmy black negligee."
"And the white rat’s dream?"
"A black hole. Yogurt. A cigar."
(Howls of laughter from Terre Haute.)
Did I say there was a wing of the Institute that was closed to the patients? About which our curiosity was left unsatisfied? I know nothing of what went on there, but I once saw through the wire mesh of the locked door’s window a figure of monstrous appearance that seemed to be floating upside down, as if in one of Georg Baselitz’s paintings.
"It is the sleep of reason."
"Who said that?"
Anxiously, I looked around me; but the room was empty.
"Is it you, Gordon?"
"No, not Gordon," said the voice.
"Who then?" I asked again of the engulfing dark and, receiving no answer, unstoppered the gin with which to quiet the ping-ponging of my heart.
Catherine was fifteen-years-old, and she had night-terrors. One night on my way back from not sleeping with Myra, the door to Catherine’s room was flung open by a nurse whose lip was bleeding onto her white uniform. Unnerved by the girl’s fury, she asked for my help in restraining her. Her strength amazed me as did the almost homicidal impulse which seemed to possess her. I remembered The Exorcist and half expected the child to vomit pea soup. The fit passed, and she fell into a deeper sleep. I was impressed by the absolute calm that now inhabited her—all the more so after her recent frenzy.
"I don’t like the tone of this at all."
"What’s wrong with it, Gordon?"
"It’s soporific. Another paragraph and I would have dropped off like Myra into profounds of sleep."
"‘Profounds’ is good."
"I stole it from Beckett."
"I understand Catherine least," I admitted.
"Because she is a girl or because she is young, and you are neither?"
"Because of her rage, Gordon. I envy her it."
"Her passionate nature."
"How her subconscious must storm! The upheaval and unreason! A lava of thought—hot and unpent. Raw—I would like, Gordon, to be, for once, raw."
"How old are you now?"
"And a proper grammarian—yes?"
"I hope I am."
"You do not, Norman, have it in you to be raw."
"Still, I should like to know this girl’s mind."
"Take the doctor’s serum."
"You want to know her dreams. You came here to acquire new images. You want to be raw. Take the serum! Griffin calls it ‘dream-walking’ by the way. It will do you good to walk out into another’s dream."
"And yet …?"
"This is all a game."
"And is it not all of it, Norman, a game?"
"100. 99. 98. 97. 96. 95. 94. 93. 92. 91. 90. 89. 87. 90. 89. 88. 80 –"
After injecting me with serum, Dr. Griffin had instructed me to count backwards from one hundred. Catherine was asleep in the bed next to mine. The room was dark except for the sickly light of the instruments. I closed my eyes and listened to myself counting in the dark. The fluorescent tubes hummed. An instrument pinged like the sonar in every submarine movie I have ever seen—that climactic moment when the crew holds its breath on the sea bottom, hoping to evade the destroyer and its depth charges. Griffin and his assistant whispered together.
I counted: "88, 80, 79, 77, 77 …."
Ping Ping Ping
Catherine opened her eyes and left the room. I followed—past Griffin and his assistant who continued to whisper together in the greenish light. The door to the hallway closed silently behind us. We moved through the murky channel of the corridor towards the recreation room.
Ping Pong Ping Pong Ping
Mr. Stanislaw showed me his heart shaped like a ping-pong paddle. I could see the damage death had done it.
"I’m sorry, Stosh," I said. "I cannot play with you."
He bowed his head and wept.
Catherine was far away now, on the river that was salt with Mr. Stanislaw’s tears.
"Catherine!" I called, but my voice was drowned in the first explosion.
A dog barked.
I started to run. My feet sank a little into the sand, lifting clouds of silt.
The river entered the sea; and in the pinging of the sonar, I forgot Catherine. The Destroyer covered me with his shadow; his depth charges rained down on me. Inside the submarine, Griffin made love to Myra, who slept—her white dress torn and spotted with blood. A depth charge exploded, and greenish water flooded the room. I floated grotesquely above the sleeping girl, my mouth clamped to her breast, watched by Griffin through a wire-mesh window.
It’s been in the oven too long!
Pulling at her restraints, Catherine was screaming in terror under me.
"She would have bitten through her wrists to wake and have me off of her!"
I shivered with cold. My clothes were wet.
"You slept the sleep of reason," said Gordon, just returned from Terre Haute. "Perhaps, Norman, you are not equal to the game."
I wished now that it were finished.
"It can end only in death," said Gordon, reading my mind. "Ask Stosh. By the way, did the submarine have a name?"
"I don’t understand," Myra tells me.
"I was telling you a story."
"Not a word."
Her look is reproachful—perhaps because of my fascination with Lulu. (I cannot admit even to myself a desire for Catherine!) Myra goes to the dresser. She looks in the mirror. I stand behind her, put my arms around her, and fondle her breasts.
She opens her blouse and shows me the teeth marks.
I look at them in the mirror. I look and look.
Myra falls asleep.
Norman Lock has written novels and short fiction as well as stage, radio, and screen plays. He received the Aga Kahn Prize from The Paris Review and, in 2011, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Among his many novels/novellas are A History of the Imagination (FC2), Land of the Snow Men (Calamari Press), The King of Sweden (Ravenna Press), Shadowplay (Ellipsis Press), Grim Tales (Mud Luscious Press), and Pieces for Small Orchestra & Other Fictions (Spuyten Duyvil).
The Sleep Institute first appeared in 3rd bed issue 9.