My wife hears the noises and she wakes me in the night. The dream I’ve been having is not a good one. There is a huge black cow with long white horns chasing me, its breath right on my neck. I don’t know what it means, but I’m frightened when I awake. Her hand is gripping my arm. She is holding her breath, almost.
Sometimes I sleep well and sometimes I don’t. My wife hardly ever sleeps at all. Oh, she takes little naps in the daytime, but you can stand back and watch her, and you’ll see what she goes through. She moans, and twists, and shakes her head no no no.
Long ago we’d go on picnics, take Sunday drives in the car. Long before that, we parked in cars and moved our hands over each other. Now all we do is try to sleep, seems like.
It’s dark in the room, but I can see a little. I move my arm and my elbow makes a tiny pop. I’m thinking coffee, orange juice, two over easy. But I’m a long way away from that. And then I know she’s hear- ing the noises once more.
“They’re down there again,” she says.
I don’t even nod my head. I don’t want to get up. It’s useless any- way, and I just do it for her, and I never get through doing it. I’m warm under the covers, and the world apart from the two of us under here is cold. I think maybe if I pretend to be asleep, she’ll give it up. So I lie quietly for a few moments, breathing in and out. I gave us a new electric blanket for our anniversary. The thermostat clicks on and off, with a small reassuring sound, keeping us warm. I think about hash browns, and toast, and shit on a shingle. I think about cold places I’ve been in. It’s wonderful to do that, and then feel the warm spaces between my toes.
“Get up,” she says.
Once I was trapped in a blizzard in Kansas. I was traveling, and a snowstorm came through, and the snow was so furious I drove my car right off the road into a deep ditch. I couldn’t even see the highway from where I was, and I foolishly decided to stay in the car, run the heater, and wait for help. I had almost a full tank of gas. The snow started covering my vehicle. I had no overshoes, no gloves. All I had was a car coat. The windshield was like the inside of an igloo, except for a small hole where I ran the defroster. I ran out of gas after nine hours of idling. Then the cold closed in. I think about that time, and feel my nice warm pajamas.
“You getting up?” she says.
I’m playing that I’m still asleep, that I haven’t heard her wake me. I’m drifting back off, scrambling eggs, warming up the leftover T-bone in the microwave, looking for the sugar bowl and the milk. The dog has the paper in his mouth.
“Did you hear me?” she says.
I hear her. She knows I hear her. I hear her every night, and it never fails to discourage me. Sometimes this getting up and down seems to go on forever. I’ve even considered separate beds. But so far we’ve just gone on like we nearly always have.I hear her. She knows I hear her. I hear her every night, and it never fails to discourage me.
I suppose there’s nothing to do but get up. But if only she knew how bad I don’t want to.
“Louis. For God’s sake. Will you get up?”
Another time I was stationed at a small base on the North Carolina coast. We had to pull guard duty at night. After a four-hour shift my feet would be blocks of ice. It would take two hours of rubbing them with my socks off, and drinking coffee, to get them back to normal. The wind came off the ocean in the winter, and it cut right through your clothes. I had that once, and now I have this. The thermostat clicks. It’s doing its small, steady job, regulating the temperature of two human bodies. What a wonderful invention. I’m mixing bat- ter and pouring it on the griddle. Bacon is sizzling in its own grease, shrinking, turning brown, bubbling all along the edges. What lovely bacon, what pretty pancakes. I’ll eat and eat.
“Are you going to get up or not?”
I sigh. I think that if I was her and she was me, I wouldn’t make her do this. But I don’t know that for a fact. How did we know years ago we’d turn out like this? We sleep about a third of our lives and look what all we miss. But sometimes the things we see in our sleep are more horrible and magical than anything we can imagine. People come after you and try to kill you, cars go backward down the high- way at seventy miles an hour with you inside and you’re standing up on the brake. Sometimes you even get a little.
I lie still in the darkness and, without looking around, can see the mound of covers next to me with a gray lump of hair sticking out. She is still, too. I think maybe she’s forgotten about the things downstairs. I think maybe if I just keep quiet she’ll drift back off to sleep. I try that for a while. The gas heater is throwing the shadow of its grille onto the ceiling and it’s leaping around. Through the black window I can see the cold stars in the sky. People are probably getting up somewhere, putting on their housecoats, yawning in their fists, plugging in their Mr. Coffees.
Once I was in the army with a boy from Montana and he got me to go home with him. His parents had a large ranch in the mountains, and they took me in like another son. I’d never seen country like that Big Sky country. Everywhere you looked, all you could see was sky and mountains, and in the winter it snowed. We fed his father’s cows out of a truck, throwing hay out in the snow, and boy those cows were glad to get it. They’d come running up as soon as they heard the truck. But I felt sorry for them, having to live outside in the snow and all, like deer. Once in a while we’d find a little calf that had frozen to death, frozen actually to the ground. I would be sad when that happened, thinking about it not ever getting to see the springtime.
I lie still under the covers in my warm bed and wonder what ever became of that boy.
Then she begins. It’s always soft, and she never raises her voice. But she’s dogcussing me, really putting some venom into it, the same old awful words over and over, until it hurts my ears to hear them. I know she won’t stop until I get up, but I hate to feel that cold floor on my feet. She’s moved my house shoes again, and I don’t want to crawl under the bed looking for them. Spiders are under there, and balls of dust, and maybe even traps set for mice. I don’t ever look under there, because I don’t want to see what I might.
I tell myself that it’s just like diving into cold water. I’ll only feel the shock for a second, and that the way to do it is all at once. So I throw the covers back and I stand up. She stops talking to me. I find the flashlight on the stand beside the bed, where I leave it every night. Who needs a broken leg going down the stairs?I tell myself that it’s just like diving into cold water. I’ll only feel the shock for a second, and that the way to do it is all at once.
It’s cold in the hall. I shine the flashlight on the rug, and on my gun cabinet, and for a moment I think I’ll go and make coffee in the kitchen, and sit there listening to it brew, and drink a cup of it and smoke a few cigarettes. But it seems an odd time of the night to do a thing like that. The thought passes, and I go down the stairs.
I open the door to the kitchen. Of course there’s nothing in there. I shut the door hard so she can hear it. I cross the dining room, lighting my way, looking at her china in the cabinet, at the white tablecloth on the table and the dust on it, and I open the door to the living room. There’s nothing in there but furniture, the fireplace, some candy in a dish. I slam the door so she can hear that, too. I’m thinking of all the dreams I could be having right now, uninterrupted. It’s too late for Carson, too late for Letterman, too late for Arsenio. They’ve all gone to bed by now.
I stand downstairs and listen to my house. I cut the light off to hear better. The silence has a noise of its own that it makes. I move to the window and push the curtains aside, but nobody’s out there on the streets. It’s cold out there. I’m glad I’m in here, and not out there. Still.
I sit in a chair for a little while, tapping the flashlight gently on my knee. I find my cigarettes in the pocket of my robe, and I smoke one. I don’t want it, it’s just a habit. It kills three or four minutes. And after that, it’s been long enough. I find an ashtray with my flashlight, and put out the cigarette. I’m still thinking about that coffee. I even look in the direction of the kitchen. But finally I go ahead and climb the stairs.
I put my hand over the bulb of the flashlight when I get near the bed. I move in my own little circle of light with quiet feet. I keep my hand over it when I move it near her face. I don’t want to wake her up if she’s asleep. My hand looks red in the light, and my skin looks thin. I don’t know how we got so old.
Her eyes are closed. She has her hands folded together, palms flat, like a child with her head resting on them. I don’t know what to do with her any more. Maybe tomorrow night she won’t hear the things downstairs. Maybe tomorrow night they’ll be up in the attic. It’s hard to tell.
I turn the flashlight off and set it back on the table beside the bed. I might need it again before the night’s over. I don’t want to be up stumbling around in the dark.
“Mama had three kittens,” she says, and I listen. Her voice is soft, remarkably clear, like a person reciting a poem. I wait for the rest of it, but it never comes. I’m lucky, this time, I guess.
I sit on the side of the bed. I don’t want to get under the covers just yet. I want to hear the house quiet again, and the silence is so loud that it’s almost overpowering. Finally I lie down and pull the covers up over my head. The warmth is still there. I move toward her, looking for I don’t know what. I think of a trip I took to Alaska a long time ago, when I was a young man. There were sled dogs, and plenty of snow, and polar bears fishing among cakes of ice for seals. I wonder how they can live in that cold water. But I figure it’s just what you get used to. I close my eyes, and I wait.
An excerpt from TINY LOVE: The Complete Stories. Used with permission of Algonquin. Copyright 2019 by Larry Brown.