Mr. White sleeps in boxers and a t-shirt once ivory but now gone gray. We who are his friends have tried to wake him, but he is coy, retreats into deep R.E.M., dreams in alpha waves firing at 10 cycles per second. With his phone shut off, and curtains drawn, he ignores the knocks at his door and the stones we throw at his window. A habit, for sure, when we come to talk with him of things he doesn’t want to hear, as we have today, Mr. White excuses himself, hurries home and slides beneath the covers.
A gifted dozer, his aptitude in this regard, to close his eyes and snooze at will, especially now, is an acquired discipline. Having conquered the quan, and mastered the mechanics, his talent for sleep is fashioned from years of experience. Modest, Mr. White doesn’t boast of his faculty, is engaging over drinks and at dinner parties, deliberate in his deeds, he sleeps only by design, is neither anemic nor narcoleptic. While pleased our friend has such a reliable retreat, and envious at times of his capacity, we still worry. He has slept this way for as long as we can remember, profoundly, so that none of the external distractions that keep the rest of us awake at night reach him.
Resilient, Mr. White sees no need to heed our caution. So completely does he hunker down and count sheep, that when anyone asks what he does best, we who care about him most answer: “He sleeps!”
Tonight, Mr. White comes home and talks of shoes. As owner of Heel To Toe, Mr. White sells black pumps and suede mules, wingtips and bluchers, Vans and DCs and Fallens. The hours downtown pass easily, and Mr. White appreciates the constancy of his days. When Mrs. White asks for news, he tells her things that sound familiar.
Mrs. White is a statistical analyst, compresses data on the probability of events in a particular population, is trained to project outcomes based on collected information. An old trick, she can predict to within a relative degree of certainty exactly what Mr. White is doing at any given hour.
Mr. White delights in how well his wife knows him, feels secure in her knowledge, convinced the way his life lacks mystery is a great achievement, performed in deference to the steadfastness of their union. A nice sentiment, we have reason to suspect Mrs. White no longer feels the same. She is sitting tonight at dinner, her right breast exposed, her nipple being thumbed by a man Mr. White doesn’t recognize. The scene comes as a shock, makes Mr. White wonder, however briefly, if there is something more about his wife that he should know.
He decides not, thinks he knows enough, that too much knowledge is a danger. As things between them are otherwise well and fine, he prefers to eat his dinner without discussing any more about it. After twenty-some years of marriage, Mr. White is of the opinion that the surprises he and Mrs. White inflict on one another are small in scope, involve nothing more than minor hiccups: a fart issued during sex; a bit too much money spent on a chainsaw; a disagreement on the merits of a particular film; how best to parent their twenty-year-old son and nineteen-year-old daughter as they are off at college now and exposed to a whole new array of freedoms. The accumulated effect does not so much weigh them down as builds scar tissue, toughens the skin of their marriage.
The other man at the table has hands the size of catcher’s mitts. Mr. White ignores this, is determined to provide Mrs. White with a better answer to her question about his day, mentions how we, his friends, came to speak with him.
Mrs. White puts down her fork at the news. The man has come from his chair and is sucking at Mrs. White’s tit, wetting her nipple, which swells to an engorged state of shiny pink. She cups the man’s head, removes him gently, has him sit back down beside her. In response to Mr. White’s statement, Mrs. White asks, “What did your friends tell you?”
Mr. White thinks a moment, tries to remember, can’t really, laughs at this, says he’s sure it was nothing important, then continues to eat. After dinner, rather than watch TV, he realizes he is suddenly tired, excuses himself and goes off to sleep.
As part of his routine, Mr. White strips down, brushes his teeth and uses the toilet. Most nights he reads first, listens to the radio, sometimes still makes love with his wife. Rarely does the interval between getting into bed and dozing last longer than forty minutes. If we, his friends, try to reach him with any news, he won’t receive us, our conversation having to wait until morning. We do not make a habit of disturbing Mr. White when he sleeps, though there are times we feel a collective urgency and can’t resist, however futile. What we have to tell Mr. White is never standard gossip, not the sort of information one brings third-hand and tosses down like a plate of cold tuna. We’re better friends than this, and hope, if nothing else, Mr. White appreciates the sincerity of our efforts. Following dinner, Mr. White sleeps face down. For at least seven hours, he will remain this way, approximately 30 percentof his adult life spent sawing wood. During his seven hours in bed, Mr. White will get up once or twice to pee, has recently reached an age when the body begins showing signs of wear and requires relief. When he does get up, sliding from beneath the sheet and comforter feet first, he manages to move from bed—he sleeps on the rightside, his wife the left–-to the bathroom some six and a half feet away, without opening his eyes for more than a second.
His return trip is much the same. Until tonight, Mr. White has never considered the chance of returning to bed and finding his spot taken; this though we have lately hinted. Sometimes, upon getting back in bed, Mr. White will peek at the clock. If he is only a few hours into his night, he will drift off again, pleased by the knowledge that he has several more hours to rest. The dreams he has then are temperate and reassuring. If his night is almost over, he will lie still until a different sort of comfort overtakes him.
The benefit of sleep is quantifiable, Mr. White knows. Refreshed, he approaches his day with confidence, surrounds himself with order, keeps a running checklist in his head: a monitoring of his marriage, his wife and two children, his store, friends and health, eating habits and exercise, his political and religious views private and rarely expressed, his pleasures and entertainment all in moderation.
We try to tell him life is more than this, that things happen outside the box and he must learn to address them, but he disagrees. “What I don’t know, I don’t have to control,” he says as if sage, as if this is all there is to it.
On those rare occasions Mr. White does not sleep well, when he wakes jagged and for no apparent reason, he finds his mood the next day suspect. Toward his wife, whom he loves with a sound and unshakable commitment, he can be neglectful in little ways that accumulate as so much lint on a dark wool jacket. We who know Mr. White well approach him only after nights his sleep is solid, speak with him then as friends, honestly and directly. When he talks to us of order, we cite examples of how his view of the world is narrow. Mr. White looks around for proof, is sure we’re wrong, insists there are no visible signs of trouble. A happy man, he laughs us off, points through the window of his store and notes how the day is sunlit.
This evening, after dinner, Mr. White does not doze right away. He thinks it may be the early hour that’s making it hard for him, and denies it has anything to do with the man at dinner. Why the man was there at all still troubles him, however. He has turned off his cell, closed his curtains to keep out the light, but hears his wife downstairs, hears the landline ring, hears a knock on the door and stones thrown against his window.
Mr. White lies on his belly, feels secure this way, his sleep surrounding him, his head turned and resting on the edge of his pillow, one arm folded in, the other straight down at his side. He keeps his feet covered but off the end of the bed. Sometimes, if he doesn’t doze right away, he will turn and lie on his back. When he sleeps on his back, the dreams he has are different, circle above him, out of reach, less accessible and peculiar.
After several minutes, he considers rolling over, though he doesn’t want to, resists the idea of getting up, isn’t interested in extending the night, prefers to lie quietly until morning. He is patient, is prepared, and finally sleeps. The dream he has is of his wife at dinner. She is naked, and being serviced by a man he doesn’t know. The dream is a puzzle. When he wakes later, in order to pee, his wife is beside him in bed. Mr. White can tell by her breathing that she’s asleep. He doesn’t disturb her, does not roll close and tell her about his dream. When he gets back in bed, he’s relieved the space is free and he can hear his wife snoring.
In the morning, Mr. White has coffee with his wife. They shower and dress and head to work. The route Mr. White takes never varies. We sit in the back while he drives, ask if he’s heard about his son’s recent interest in Vedanta Hinduism, about his daughter’s new boyfriend encouraging her to get a tattoo of Colonel Sanders on her ass. “Why Colonel Sanders?” we ask, but he isn’t listening. The restiveness of last night’s sleep has left him feeling slightly off, and he’s determined to push the negative energy away.
When we arrive at Heel To Toe, Mr. White’s brother is waiting inside. Mr. White does not remember giving his brother a key, but assumes he must have, as here he is. The other Mr. White is taller, a leanness not attributable to exercise but nervous tension, he presents the image of a man undone, is sitting in one of the chairs where people try on shoes. In his lap is a pistol, dark grey, a heavy handgun like the one Clint Eastwood carried in Dirty Harry. Mr. White’s brother has his fingers on the handle of the gun, his knees bent at a ninety-degree angle, his free hand set like a rag doll’s against his thigh.
Mr. White says, “Excuse me a minute,” decides to go in back and close his eyes until the store is open. He thinks this is a good idea, is sure his brother will understand. No need to rush, especially as he’s tired, he has with his brother an uncomplicated relationship, no bad blood, they talk on the phone often, as much as once a month sometimes. We last saw Mr. White’s brother just after he lost his job at Hartwick and Stern, was overextended, drowning in debt, an undignified way to go, he said, “I prefer stones in the pockets and waters not too cold.”
Our Mr. White showed sympathy, offered a loan and hours at the store. He assumed his brother was joking about the rest, accepted the gallows humor as a good sign, laughed, then went home and slept.
In back, Mr. White hangs up his coat, turns on the lights from the master switch, sits and chills. We’re a bit perplexed, come back and whisper as calmly as we can, as we do not wish to startle Mr. White, know he is a reasonable man and will manage things well once he understands, but “Have you not noticed the gun?”
Before he can answer, Sabrina’s there. Mr. White hears the door, opens his eyes, shifts his focus, walks out to the main area of the store. He’s about to turn and see if his brother would like some coffee, knows Sabrina will go now and fix the pot, but the day’s first customer comes in and Mr. White is suddenly all business, his focus mercantile, his mind on making the sale.
Who can argue? Mr. White thinks: “The world is a wonder,” the ability to sell a pair of Bruno Magli Carregas at ten in the morning. When he comes out of the storage area again, this time carrying the box of shoes, his son is sitting beside his brother. Bare foot, wearing a grey and red lungi and no shirt, he is thin and slightly dirty, his hair muffed and long. We watch from the front of the store as Mr. White sees his son, acknowledges his brother, goes and fits the woman in her shoes.
Although he is curious, and a bit concerned, he doesn’t want to ask too quickly what his son is doing home from school, and why he’s dressed this way, like a Hindi, though it’s late fall and the air is not receptive to a half-naked boy. Rather than question, and have his day disrupted further, Mr. White tells himself it’s good his brother is here to keep the boy company, that they can chat while he works.
An hour later, Mr. White’s daughter appears.
She comes in while Mr. White is showing a pair of Allan Edmonds to a man in a gray flannel suit. Mr. White laces the Edmonds up tightly, tests the man’s arch and toes. A busy morning, he has not had time to talk with his son and brother, though he intends to. We point across the room, as Mr. White’s daughter shows her new Colonel Sanders tattoo to her uncle and brother. “Don’t you think?” we ask, and worn down, Mr. White finally agrees. “In a minute,” he says.
Two women want Nine West boots. A man tries on Timberlands, then Paul Fredrick’s. The day returns to normal, though there’s a ticking now in Mr. White’s head. Just before lunch, he goes to find his son and daughter and brother, but they have waited long enough, have left the store. Mr. White is suddenly anxious. We’ve not seen him this way in a very long time. “Do you think,” he asks, “there’s something wrong?”
We help Mr. White look, check the storage room, out in the parking lot, in the lavatory and back again in front. While we search, Mr. White tells us about his dream, wonders what we make of it. We who are his friends have already told him, but don’t repeat, say instead, “It’s good you’re thinking now about your wife.” We suggest surprising Mrs. White by taking her to dinner and later for a Tantra massage. We encourage Mr. White to bring her a nice pair of shoes, a Bronze Leather by Chloe, for example. Tomorrow, we say, you should pick her up in the middle of the afternoon and go to the Dash Inn where you can do whatever it is people do in the middle of the afternoon at that sort of motel.
Mr. White considers this, says “Possibly so,” though he remains noncommittal. We shake our heads, state more firmly, “All these ideas are sound and should not be put off.” As we can’t find where the others have gone, we tell Mr. White, “For now, you need to call.”
He understands. With each call however, he fails to get hold of anyone. He leaves messages, tries not to sound alarmed, apologizes for not speaking with them earlier. He’s feeling very tired, goes out for lunch, grabs a sandwich from the deli across the street, drives to his brother’s house where he finds the doors locked, a For Sale sign in the yard. He returns to his car, hustles us into the back seat, forces us to squeeze in as there’s more of us now, we who want to be with him and lend support.
Mr. White drives to the University where Mrs. White works at the Ronald Aylmer Fisher Research Center. He goes up to her office, but she, too, is not there. He waits a while, calls Sabrina, lets her know he’ll return to the store as soon as he can.
A man at Mrs. White’s office looks vaguely familiar. Mr. White leaves a note for his wife on her desk, comes out into the hall, introduces himself to the man, asks if he knows where Mrs. White might be, wonders, “Why is it you look familiar?”
The man is polite. He tells Mr. White that he has not seen Mrs. White since they came back from lunch. They agree Mrs. White must be in a meeting. The man says he doesn’t mind if Mr. White wants to wait.
Being away from the store at this time of day feels strange, though Mr. White decides to give his wife another few minutes. He heads back to her office, thinks about his son, his daughter and brother, about the lives they lead with and without him. He thinks about all he knows and doesn’t, is confused by this, about what he doesn’t know, what maybe he should but doesn’t want to know.
We try to tell Mr. White what he wants and doesn’t is only half the duck’s waddle, but he can’t hear us, has locked us in the car. What he wants, we know, is for everything to be all right, the world as he prefers safe and beautiful and familiar, but what sort of picket fence bullshit is this? We honk the horn, rattle the doors, beat our fists against the windshield. Mr. White closes his eyes, pictures his wife, wishes she could have been there earlier, at the Heel To Toe, to share time with their children and his brother. How nice it was to have everyone together, Mr. White thinks, and hopes next time they can stay longer.
He leans back in his wife’s chair, finds the prospect soothing. What choice for us then? We remove the brake, set the car to rolling.
First published in The Los Angeles Review
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Steven Gillis is the author of Walter Falls, The Weight of Nothing, Giraffes, Temporary People, and The Consequence of Skating. His stories, articles, and book reviews have appeared in over four dozen journals, and his books have been finalists for the Independent Publishers Book of the Year Award and the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year among others. A three-year member of the Ann Arbor Book Festival Board of Directors, and a finalist for the 2007 Ann Arbor News Citizen of the Year, Steve also founded 826michigan and is the co-founder of Dzanc Books. Steve taught writing at Eastern Michigan University for three years. His story collection The Law of Strings is now available from Atticus Books.