NIGHTS WHEN I’M TIRED
Mom fell asleep around Labor Day that year and the slumber was deep. Dad bagged the recycling, drove to school on weekdays, spread his papers across the living room floor in the afternoons, and asked me often if I needed anything. I always told him no, but each Sunday when I’d finished my chores, I’d wait at the kitchen table for the chunk-chunk-putputput-whirrrrrr of the lawnmower in the backyard, then venture upstairs to see if Mom had stirred.
One Sunday evening in October, Dad was changing the mower blade out by the shed and I figured he’d be occupied until the stars came out. “Mom?” I called gently from the foyer. “Mom?” She didn’t answer and I quietly mounted the stairs. “Mom, are you awake?”
The bedroom door was open and I crossed the threshold. Twilight sounds stirred in the yard, beyond the drawn shade and the poplar boughs in muted silhouette. The oscillating fan in the corner whirred calmly as I neared the foot of her bed. She was reduced by then to a snoring, pillow-laden mound of patchwork quilts; sometimes on her stomach, other times curled up; sometimes a leg flung free of the bedding, other times an arm. But she was always there, and I stood at the foot of the bed, watching the rise and fall of her breath, uncertain if her presence was a comfort or a disappointment. The clock on the wall, the cicada drone, the fan’s hum all seemed to stretch like a tape cassette when you put a finger on the ribbon. Slower and slower, dragging and slurring, until my ears made it silence and I decided to wake her. I had to wake her. I even moved to touch her leg, but, for some reason, I stopped myself, hand outstretched and fingers spread.
I’m still not sure why.
The best I can think is that I was scared. I couldn’t name it at the time, but I know now that I was wary, especially in those first weeks, of spoiling her solitude, of pinching her while she dreamed, of who she might have become with her eyes closed and how much of it she’d remain if I woke her too early. I can’t remember exactly what was going through my head in that moment, but I hesitated. I held my hand over her leg for a split second, and that was more than I had.
“Shh. Come away from there, Laurie,” Dad said from the doorway. I jumped and drew my hand back, startled. “Your mother’s very tired,” he said, leaning with his elbow on the molding. “Come away from there.”
Mom resumed her snoring and the opportunity stole away with the waning daylight while I watched her and damned my indecision. If I had to guess, I think that was when the idea took root, deep in my belly, that I’d wanted her to keep sleeping, that I’d hesitated because I didn’t necessarily want her awake. She pulled the pillow more firmly over her head and Dad cleared his throat, but I just stared at her, willing away the sudden fear that she might never move again. For almost a minute, Dad and I stood there with the hallway light in a column over the floor and evening gathering in the corners. He sighed and I finally turned to leave, but the idea clung to me. You didn’t want her to wake up, did you? Go on, say it out loud.
I never did say it out loud. It was nonsense.
Dinner that night was reheated chicken over buttered pasta. We ate late, Dad and I, at opposite ends of the table and, when we’d finished, I left the dishes to soak and Dad to wipe down the countertops and went upstairs to finish my homework. Mom snored steadily on the other side of the wall and I blocked it out with headphones full of music. Quadratic equations, I think it was, and I worked and worked while faces stared down from just beyond the dim lamplight; posters of movies, photographs of friends, and caricatures drawn by an amusement park artist on my twelfth birthday in which Mom’s head was too big and my face was cheerier than I remembered being. I worked and worked until, with a pop, the bulb in the desk lamp burned out.
For a moment, nothing moved but the moonlight on the wall. Shadowy branches tickled the pale glow and I removed the headphones and went downstairs. I padded across the dimly lit kitchen to the cabinet where Dad stashed the extra lightbulbs, but none remained, so I wrapped my hand in a dry dishrag and unscrewed the single bulb from the light over the sink. The kitchen went black and, at that very instant, a sudden cough cut the silence. I froze and it came again: close. I opened the back door and found Mom sitting on the porch rail, feet swinging against the balusters.
“What’s that?” she asked casually, balancing a cigarette between the fingers of her right hand. I’d always known she smoked—the house smelled like old pennies and air freshener—but I’d never seen her with a cigarette, never found a pack lying around, never seen her stop to buy them.
“What?” I could feel my face slacken and my eyes grow wide, but she didn’t seem to notice. I felt like an intruder in the night, but she was calm, in control of those parts of herself that were visible in the darkness.
“What’s that?” she said again, this time pointing her cigarette at the rag in my hand.
“Oh,” I said, staring at the red ember as I unwrapped the rag and held up the bulb so that she could see. “We’re out of lightbulbs. My desk lamp died. This is the one from—”
“Ah.” She nodded at the dark kitchen window. “I saw.”
Rustling leaves and the distant, irregular harping of a bullfrog hovered around the edge of the quiet and she raised the cigarette and took a drag. Smoke spilled from the corner of her mouth and I remember her staring back from the shadow, not into my eyes but rather just past them, over my ear or maybe at my forehead or the tip of my nose, like an actress taming her nerves. I started to speak, but she cut me off.
“It’s dark out tonight,” she said.
I stopped with my lips still formed around the word Why and she dropped her gaze. Her feet clicked against the balusters and I looked around.
“Sure,” I said. The sky was a truer black, with a faint silver ripple of cloud in the space where the moon hung earlier. I looked back to her and nodded. “Sure,” I said again. “It’s probably the clouds. It’s just the clouds, I think.”
She took another drag and stared just past me again. As she released the stream of smoke, her face turned slowly from mine until she was gazing over her shoulder, into the night.
“I like nights like this.”
“Dark,” she said.
“Dark.” She tapped the ash from her cigarette, then motioned with it toward the yard. “I feel like I can hear more of what’s out there. I feel like, when I close my eyes, I can see what I’m supposed to. Better than in the daylight.”
I didn’t know what she meant so I just nodded, and she was silent for a long time, staring off into the yard. The quiet chewed away at my ears and I wanted to return to the kitchen, close the door behind me, climb the stairs back to my room. “I like it too,” I said finally, just to hear something other than night. “It’s—it’s nice.”
She sighed and took another pull. “I used to come out to sleep in the yard, under the clouds, on nights like this. A long time ago. Before you were born, before this house, before your father.” The crickets billowed and we were both quiet and I remember being oddly certain that she wasn’t waiting for me to speak so much as for her words to decay, to break down into their component elements and join the earth under the poplar where the hostas grew. So I waited. “It’s been years now,” she said, after a long time. “It’s been many, many years.”
A light flicked on somewhere behind me while I puzzled over her face; old and smoke-carved; half-lit by the feeble moon, freed again from the clouds. How could she be so comfortable, sitting there talking like that? I was still watching her when she ground the cigarette cold on the rail, dropped it into the garden, and slid from her perch. The questions vanished and my mind raced for something to say, something to keep her there; anything, fact or fiction, question or statement, that she might find interesting. “Without a tent or a blanket or anything?” I blurted out. “You just—”
“I should get inside,” she said, as though I hadn’t even spoken. “It’s getting late. It’s really getting late.” She yawned, then glanced from the house, back to me. “See you in the morning.”
The door swung shut behind her and I stared after her and knew that she wouldn’t. She slowly disappeared into my reflection and I watched my pale face in the storm door, counting under my breath until I was sure she was far enough away. The crickets sang and I still held the bulb in the rag as I pushed the door open again and climbed back to my room.
The next morning, I came out before Dad was up and found the cigarette butt in the silent garden. My breath came in clouds and I covered the butt with mulch, then went back to the kitchen for breakfast. That night, I finished my homework early and, once Dad was in bed, tip-toed quietly downstairs and out onto the empty porch. The wide moon winked behind sparse clouds and the night chirped and buzzed and rustled. I sat next to the burn mark Mom had left on the railing and clicked my heels against the balusters, but she never came and I gave up and went to bed.
For months, I repeated the ritual, each night after Dad fell asleep. At first, I obscured my purpose in case he woke. I carried a glass downstairs to fill with grapefruit juice from the fridge, left my backpack in the kitchen so I could pretend I’d come down for a book, or rummaged in the catchall drawer for batteries or rubber bands until I was satisfied he was still dreaming in the guest room overhead. After a week or two, I abandoned the pretense, safe in the knowledge that I’d be alone.
She slept through the falling leaves and rain and cooling weather and, over and over, I watched the moon drift from shining climax, all the way to nothing, and back again. From the porch, I listened to the crickets in the hedgerow, the frogs in the creek bed. With only the shape of the night to mark the hours, I waited and waited, but Mom never came back out.
One night, while frost still slicked the grass, I decided to sleep in the yard. It was March, I think, and I had no way of knowing that, in a few weeks, I would wake to the smell of hot bacon and descend the stairs to find her standing over a popping skillet like she’d gotten a single, wonderful night’s sleep and nothing more; that she would wish me good morning and pass me a plate loaded with avocado, eggs, sugared berries, and sliced grapefruit; that I wouldn’t know what to do but pretend I hadn’t thought about waking her, every night for half a year.
I had no way of knowing, and I let the storm door close quietly behind, dropped the pillow and quilt on the porch, and sat for a moment on the rail, under the moon and clouds. The night whirred and whined and I wondered if Mom would’ve gotten out of bed that evening in October—and every morning since—if I’d just shaken her leg. Might she be stretched out right now, waiting for me on the empty lawn, if I’d just wrenched the blankets from her body and thrown open the curtain?
I hopped the railing and pulled the quilt and pillow after me. Mulch and petals, then grass and leaves cooled my feet, and the crickets breathed. I unfurled the quilt in the quiet and the crickets erupted in song as my head struck the pillow. Staring at the moon, I thought about marching back up the stairs and shaking her awake, but with that impulse came the idea that I might’ve been dwelling on the wrong failure, the wrong opportunity missed. Like a flash, it passed, and I fell asleep and dreamed of daylight in the windows, of roller coasters on my birthday, of popcorn on the couch, and her face under the blue flicker of a movie that I knew in the dream but couldn’t recall upon waking.
Peter Amos lives in Queens, New York with his wife and one-year-old son. He was raised in rural Virginia and studied jazz and classical guitar in college before moving to the city. His writing can be found at The Maryland Literary Review, Eclectica, and on his website, The Imagined Thing.
Read more from Cleaver Magazine’s Issue #35.