The valley in my pillow sank every year, and at first I coped by wrestling its downy gut into shape with fitful punches. But after nine centimeters, my pillow, like a gray old cat, was set in its ways, and that’s when I started remembering.
I skimmed consciousness at least three times a night, my neck pinched by the awkward dumbbell shape. During these breaches, dreams infiltrated the cognizant fantasies and memories that patch together my day-to-day, wakeful narrative.
There weren’t men with knives under my car or black oceans drowning my elderly parents. Instead, I suffered mediocre nightmares starring angry people (friends, cab drivers, coworkers, actors, acquaintances, my boss …). Three mornings straight, I woke with a knotted neck and troubled visions. Then, during the fourth night, I dreamt a doozy. For hours, my groggy brain trapped me inside a nightmarish perpetual motion scenario. I had to carry a rock step by step up a descending escalator as a roaring crowd pressed against my back. It was high time for a new pillow.
That weekend, I called Az. She enjoyed the city, and I wanted company. We took a bus to Café Maria; it had clean tables and reliable service, but the atmosphere unnerved me. Red curtains drenched in coffee-smell filtered the midday sunlight, casting a hellish glow over the patrons. A black apron clinging to his chest, the waiter-barista fixed us bitter cappuccinos and rye turkey cheddar melts as Verdi’s Requiem wept from ambient music speakers in the wall. Az ate her lunch quickly; to Az, food was a chore, like bathing or tying a shoe, and she finished before my third bite.
“Do you like to sleep?” Az asked. “Is that why you’re going to the mall for a pillow?”
“Yes.” I did not contemplate the answer. It was poised on my tongue with other personal certainties: my name is Irene, I love puppies, tornadoes frighten me … I could reel off these facts like a cattle show auctioneer.
“I hate sleep. It feels like wasting time.” Az downed her cappuccino in two definitive swigs, and I questioned whether anybody could truly hate sleep. Fear sleep, certainly, but hate? Based on personal experience, I concluded that it was possible. After a veterinarian put my childhood terrier to sleep, I launched a wakefulness campaign. Come bedtime, I would pinch my baby brother until he wailed. This, in turn, roused Mom and Dad, and for two nights I killed the sandman.
“Maybe New York City is wrong for me,” I said. “I dream about angry people. Like all the faces in the rush hour crowd are scolding me. You know, I should find a small town. Do they exist nowadays?”
Az held my gaze long enough to embarrass me. She had inexpressive black eyes. One was glass (thanks to a hunting accident, Az claimed, though a mutual acquaintance once told me that Az was born with one eye like Cyclops), but I usually could not distinguish her fake eye from its organic counterpart.
“They do,” she said. “Have I told you about my sister, Adebola?”
“No.” In fact, I had assumed that Az was an only child, a past befitting of her self-proclaimed “lone wolf” persona.
“Adebola moved to Castle Moat, Vermont,” Az said, “three years ago.”
“You don’t know Castle Moat. That town is dwarfed by the Appalachian Mountains, and just one paved road runs through it. You’d have better luck finding Atlantis on a roadmap. Anyway, Adebola was an accommodating newlywed, and her husband wanted a quiet place to work.”
“Is he a painter?” Vermont, with its pine-green mountains, red-cold-pink autumn foliage, muddy lakes, wildflower patches, and moldy rural villages, was a dirty palate.
“Yes. Watercolor landscapes. Adebola paints, too, but doesn’t sell. She gets attached.”
“I know the feeling. I drew a bird in third grade, and it still hangs over my bed.”
Az crinkled the dark skin between her eyebrows, a clue to her emotional reaction. Still, I couldn’t determine whether she sympathized with me or thought, perhaps, that I had a tacky bedroom.
“What about Castle Moat?” I asked. “Please continue.”
“Quaint,” she said. “They rented a two-bedroom one-story on Cobble Street. Seriously, there were real nineteenth century cobblestones in the street. It’s that kind of town. A retired couple lived next door. The woman was bed-ridden, but her husband stayed active in his garden. They entertained people religiously; apparently, cars clogged their driveway every week after Sunday church. Considering the pair’s hospitable nature, Adebola kinda expected the welcome basket that she found on her doorstep. It was filled with home-grown produce and a simple white card. My sister really appreciated the gesture. She complained tons about loneliness. It’s hard meeting people when you work at home.”
“Adebola had friendly neighbors, though,” I said. “Must be nice. What did the card say?”
“Oh, that. Something like, ‘Welcome to the neighborhood, stranger.’ The old man sent one basket every week. He tended eight vegetable plots in his back yard. Adebola painted his garden once. The painting is gone now. We built a canvas bonfire on the Jersey shore. The melting colors were beautiful.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “Az?”
“Sometimes, Adebola watched the old man garden. Her studio window provided a decent view. Mr. Ohlsen – that was his name – watered seven plots with a hose, but the eighth …”
Adebola turned abruptly. “Psychiatrists are paid to listen. You are paid to make lattes and press noisy buttons on a cash register.”
The waiter-barista who had prepared our drinks and sandwiches muttered something apologetic and continued wiping a nearby table with a moist towel. “He was eavesdropping,” Az explained.
“Still.” I lowered my voice. “You were rude.” I worked in a cubical hive, and my coworkers’ loud, personal phone conversations proved blissfully entertaining and illuminating. Sarah from accounting would never confide in me, but through eavesdropping I learned that she was habitually cranky because her son had night terrors. Our relationship has improved since then.
“He was rude, too. An eye for an eye,” Az said. I almost laughed.
“You were telling me about the vegetable plot,” I prompted.
“Ah, yes. He watered the others with a garden hose, but the eighth, well, Adebola once told me that Mr. Ohlsen used a black pail to water that one. He wore blue surgical gloves – not the gardening variety – when he carried it. But you know the really odd thing?”
I shrugged, since my mouth was occupied with turkey and rye.
“Mr. Ohlsen filled the neighborly baskets he gave Adebola with vegetables from the eighth plot. Only the eighth plot. My sister and brother-in-law fell ill near the end of summer. Stomach aches, dry mouths, headaches, that sort of thing. The symptoms persisted for weeks. Adebola let paranoia get the best of her, so she stopped eating Mr. Ohlsen’s vegetables, and the sickness immediately vanished. Perhaps it was just a coincidence. Maybe even psychosomatic. Don’t ask me. Regardless, the neighbors, the garden, the Sunday gatherings next door: they all frightened Adebola once she knew about that black pail. In Castle Moat, she really was a stranger. At least we’re all strangers in the city.”
I swallowed my last bite of food. Verdi’s Requiem became Mozart’s Requiem.
“But we’re friends,” I said. “You. Me. Friends, not strangers. Right?”
“You missed the point, Irene.”
Az and I left hellish Café Maria five minutes later, and I blew fifty dollars on a pillow designed by NASA. It was guaranteed to combat valleys and had a ten-year warranty.
Eleven hours later, I jolted awake, paralyzed by fear, but couldn’t remember why.
Darcie Little Badger is an oceanographer and plankton enthusiast.