Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2012 v11n1
 print version


Mr. Dubcheck, my seventh grade English teacher, was a snorer. Even from the outside, through his bedroom windows, I could hear the sounds issue from his throat like a groan of pain. Half-sprawled over the bed, he lay with his eyes pressed tight, his mouth rolling, lips slightly parted.

I scrawled in my notebook: snorer. Then, after a moment, I added, deep sleeper. He choked, his groans temporarily halted, turned over, and then opened his eyes for a half a second, as if he were staring straight at me, before closing them, falling back into a noisy slumber. I paused and then added a question mark after the deep sleeper, just to be precise, to be exact.

I leaned forward, my nose pressing against the screen, my breath drawing little dots of fog across the glass. I held my pen above my notebook like a wand as I watched and waited, observing every spurt and cough. Some nights, it would take only minutes. Other nights, hours. I’d fill pages and pages of notes or write nothing at all, it always depended on who I watched.

He shifted again. His pupils fluttered beneath paper eyelids, ranging back and forth, rapid and frightened, before settling into a glassy stillness that made me think of water, sleep that was deep and restful. At this, I jotted a final note: Dreams of . . . fathers. This I circled. Once. Twice. Over and over again until it was buried beneath a thickening cloud of black.


I had a dozen of these notebooks stuffed beneath my mattress. Each entry was rigorously categorized, labeled by name, address, date, and time, but the notes themselves were disheveled and chaotic, a scribbling of whatever came to mind the moment I peered into someone’s window: Restless, I’d jot, tosses, murmurs. Smacks her mouth. Lips pursed like a whistler’s. Curled up like a cat. Lies on his back and whispers to no one. There were hundreds of ways to sleep, but I always came to them the same, these little bodies tucked tight beneath the sheets, sleeping in a perfect kind of dark, thinking themselves safe, locked away. Behind glass I scribbled with the vigor and depth of a perfect student as the sleeper murmured to himself, silent and peaceful. These were their most private moments, and in that, I knew I would not miss a thing. I stared until my eyes became parched and dry, and I, unblinking, was unable to turn away.


I had always been a nervous sleeper. When I was four, I needed the weight of another body in my bed to sleep. It was protection, a ward against the slips and sighs that inevitably came with the night, the shape of someone’s shoulders safe and solid against mine. My mother, whose patience was wide and deep, relished it. She was a nurse who worked night shifts, and before she left for the hospital, she’d lay next to me when she stopped by to say goodnight, slipping into one side of my tiny bed, the weight of her thighs tilting the mattress so that I fell against her. There, she rubbed my back and hummed softly until I drifted away. I could never recall her getting up after that, her body rising from the bed, a feather, scooting off to work like a ghost.

But every so often, there was my father. He was a quiet man who reminded me of a museum exhibit trapped behind a velvet rope or pressed beneath a glass case. Always out of reach, something I shouldn’t touch, couldn’t touch. He sat in the living room late at night reading his newspaper, a beer in hand. He lounged in the kitchen early in the morning and chewed on a bagel, staring out the window. Always framed by a doorway, I rarely saw him, if ever, smile. He passed through the house to and from work, orbiting around my mother and I, never occupying the same room at the same time, a slow, lumbering moon.

I asked for him when I woke up. I asked for him long after mom left to work, my voice small in the dark, and though I could taste his irritation when he entered the room, I still wanted him at four, his presence. He slumped hard on the foot of my bed, filling the room with the snap and smell of his newspaper, and tried to read the print in the cloudy dark. Every so often he peered over, his voice flat, and asked me if I was asleep yet, to which I always shrugged a meek “no.” We’d go like that, in a circle, him asking the same question, and me answering the same “no,” until some thirty minutes later, sighing, he’d stand up and walk out without another word, as if it were a game we’d been playing that I had somehow failed.

I never blamed him for it. I was a boy. His boy. Even at four I knew I needed to be brave; I was too old for such things, and always had been. Yet I was still afraid of all that could go wrong in the night. I was scared of my chest stopping, as if it’d suddenly run out of batteries. Of the ceiling caving in on me, a terrible crush of earth filling the room. Of the monsters that lunged from the closets, my screams cut off in their long and taloned fingers. Still, I tried the best I could when my father would inevitably leave, turning and pulling the sheets over my head like a shawl, wishing for a sleep that would never come.


Mr. Dubcheck tapped me on the shoulder three times, his chalk-dusted fingers imprinting whitened shadows into my shirt. He towered over me, peering through his spectacles, which were perched low on the bridge of his nose, like a librarian’s.

“Still thinking, Jeremy?” he asked.

I was stuck. All around me, the other kids sat with their heads pitched down, filling the air with the sharp scribbling sound that came from pen on wood. Thirty minutes into class, I was still stuck on the first paragraph. Instead, I had taken to doodling, and in the bottom corner of the page, I’d finished a picture of an angry cat wearing a cowboy hat. I looked at Mr. Dubcheck and nodded.

“Well,” he said. “What do you have so far?”

He pulled a chair next to mine and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose with an index finger. He picked up my paper and read exactly the way I’d always imagined him at home: mouthing our poorly formed words to the empty air before him, like an incantation.

“‘People sleep in all kinds of ways,’” he murmured. “‘Some sleep on their sides. Some sleep on their backs. Some sleep on their faces. All people, however, need to sleep. This is a scientific fact. No one can go long without rest.’”

Mr. Dubcheck stopped and looked at me, his face an amused curl.

“Jeremy,” he said, “is this really what you want to write about?”

I shrugged and drew a pipe for the angry cat to smoke. He drummed his fingernails across the surface of my desk and nodded.

“Well. Why don’t we take a closer look at this? Go deeper,” he said. “What else can you say about sleep?”

I paused and twirled my pen in my fingers. “People have habits,” I said after a moment. “Habits they don’t even know they have when they’re awake. Habits you would never know unless you watched someone while they slept.”

“Like what?”

“Like snoring. And whispering. Some people groan like they’re in pain. Others don’t move at all, like they’ve been shot,” I said. “And they dream. They dream of lots of different things, like monsters or falling or flying. Some people dream of their friends and family.”

“Good,” he said, nodding. He slid the paper across my desk and back in front of me. “Now tie it all together under a unified topic. Why is this all important?”

It was important, I wanted to tell him, because none of it mattered if you couldn’t sleep. I had no habits, no dreams, or none, at least, that I could remember. But I didn’t respond. He rose from his chair, squeezed my shoulder, and smiled. He didn’t say another word, but instead stood there, beaming genially until I caved in, and began to dutifully jot, my own pen scraping against paper. He gave my shoulder one last squeeze and pat before continuing on down the row, peering here, pausing there. I looked up and studied the flat of Mr. Dubcheck’s back as he walked away. They’d been good friends, my father and him. This was years ago, before my father disappeared, before I ever had Mr. Dubcheck as an English teacher. On the weekends, I’d listen to the garage door open and close, and then rush to the window and watch the red blinking taillights of our minivan zoom off into the night.

“Where’s dad going?” I’d ask.

“To the bar,” my mother would say.

“Is he going to see Larry?”

“Mr. Dubcheck,” she’d correct. “Don’t call adults by their first names. It’s rude.”

And then, I’d nod into the window, as if I’d always known who Mr. Dubcheck was, though in truth, he’d been little more than a name to me. But he could hold my father’s attention. His mention could draw a smile, a glance, a nod. He was important to my father, and in that, he was also important to me.


By nine, my fear of sleep had turned into insomnia. I was too old to be put to bed, and by then, my mother had been pulling longer and longer shifts at the hospital. My father had lost his job and spent almost all his time at home, rummaging about the house like a ghost, his hair, his face, a disheveled and unshaven mess. On most nights, it’d be just the two of us, and when he turned in, the house quiet and still, I’d hop from my mattress, my legs and arms rubbery with energy, and pace the room like a trapped animal. Then one night, unable to take in the same four walls any more, I decided to leave.

It was a clear, warm night, the moon perched three-quarters across the sky like a milky slash. Everything was carpeted in a halo of blue and the grass was wet beneath my feet. I walked around the side of the house, found the window to my parents’ bedroom, and approached low, crouching near the ground, my shoulders hunched beneath the sill. I did not know then, as I do now, that most people never looked out their windows at night, even those with their blinds pulled up. It was as if that glass was a portion of their room that wasn’t real, those trees and shrubs and grasses another framed picture to be glanced at every now and then. I pressed my shoulders against the aluminum siding and slowly rose until I could see clear into the room.

There were two beds set against opposite walls, one empty, the other holding my father, who lay with his back against the window, his hands tucked beneath his head. I waited for a long while, watching. He did not move the way I expected him to move. He lacked the subtle rustles and sighs, the jerks and twitches that came with sleep and dream. My father slept as if he were dead, as if he could lie on the floor, on wood, on grass, on concrete, and stay there forever. He slept as if he did not dream at all.

And then, like a monster, he rose. Dead one moment, alive the next, he shot straight up. I dropped like a stone, back beneath the sill, sucking in the smell of soil and wet grass. I closed my eyes, counted my breaths, and waited for my chest to slow. I waited for what seemed like forever, and when I rose again I saw both beds empty, the door leading to the hallway open.

I crept to the yard with no real plan except curiosity, and snaked through the back door, winding my way through the guts of the house, checking the bathroom, the kitchen, my bedroom, one by one, all quiet and empty. Then I wandered to the front of the house and found the door leading to the garage ajar, a pillar of light spilling into the hallway. I peeked through, and found my father sitting in the driver’s seat of our minivan with the headlights on. The garage door behind the minivan was closed and it was quiet inside, the way an unfurnished basement would feel, holding all that summer warmth at bay.

He looked as he always did. Exhausted. He stared straight through the windshield, unblinking, his mouth slightly parted, as if he hadn’t slept in days. His eyes were dark bruises. The driver’s side window was rolled down and his arm was propped over it, a silver can of beer in his fist. When he finally registered my presence, me standing there, gazing intently, he blinked twice, and then retracted his arm. He shut off the headlights, opened the car door, and stepped out.

“Jeremy,” he said. “What are you doing here?”

“I couldn’t sleep,”I said.

He paused and then asked again. ”What are you doing here?”

“I thought I heard you get up.”

He ran his hand over the top of his head, the one that still held the gold band on his ring finger, no beer can in sight.

“What you’re doing is very dangerous,” he said. “Do you know that?”

I nodded, but slowly edged around him. Inside the minivan, through the still open window, I could see a six-pack glittering on the passenger seat. I could see the garage door shut like a tomb. I looked for the car keys, which were nowhere in view, but I imagined them still fastened in the ignition, waiting to be twisted, the minivan roaring to life, the thick, heady exhaust spilling into the closed garage.

“I just wanted to make sure you were okay,” I said.

“Everything is okay,” he said, nodding, his head attempting to confirm words as fact, but said no more. He waited as I waited, as if trying to outlast me, a game we played, had always played, the one willing the other to leave first, but didn’t he know that it would always be him?

“I couldn’t sleep,” I said in a very small voice. And then I moved close, as if I was four again, and he did not edge away. I could smell the stink of beer on his shirt, his hair, his skin, as if it was a part of him, a sourness that followed him like a cloud. I placed my ear on his chest, pulling myself into the center of him, and he did not retract. Instead, he embraced me the way a father would, his large hands wrapping around my head, pulling me close, his fingers ruffling my hair, until all I could see were the peaks and valleys of a wrinkled shirt.


Getting into Mr. Dubcheck’s house was easier than I expected. The small window above his kitchen sink was unlocked and gave easily when I pressed my fingers against the glass. Like a fish, I shimmied my way, backpack and all, through the tiny opening head-first, and reached across the sink, wrapping my fingers around the lip of the countertop, dragging myself inside clear and slow.

It smelled of smoke. In the center of the kitchen table was an ashtray half-filled with crushed cigarette stubs, and for some reason, I found it difficult to imagine Mr. Dubcheck sitting there, alone, at the lip of a lonely table, a red-tipped cigarette alit between his lips, his face awash in a haze of smoky gray. But it was also a smell, I realized, that had always preceded his entrances into the classroom, one that I could never before precisely name.

I followed the hallway out of the kitchen to the side of the house, where his bedroom was located. His door was slightly ajar, and from behind it, I could hear his snores issue louder and louder with every step I took. I slowed down as I approached. I paused and pulled my notebook and a pen from my backpack and held them tight in my fingers. I peeked inside first, then inched the door open until it was wide enough for me to squeeze through. Then I stepped through.

It was different without the window glass, all that detail. I could hear how the phlegm in his throat made his snores sticky. I could smell the smoke, stronger now, issue from him like the stink of beer from my father. I could see his face twitch in his sleep, those tiny muscles jerking and shifting beneath the skin like a live wire. I knew all this, could see, feel, and hear all this, and yet it was not enough. I bit my lip and pressed my knuckles into my thigh. I reached out and touched his shoulder. With two fingers I tapped him the way he’d tapped me the other day in class.

“Mr. Dubcheck,” I said.

He woke slow, then fast. His snoring stopped and his eyes peeled into little slits before snapping wide and white. Shouting, he grabbed me by the forearm, his grip a vise, and shoved me against the wall. I did not scream, though I wanted to. Instead, I fell to the carpet, feeling the hard of his bed frame against my forehead, and held my arms over my body as his blows came like a furious hail, his heels gouging into my elbows and ribcage. Then, he stopped. Then, light flooded the room and I was blind, and for a long time, silence.

Then, a panting, “Jeremy?”

I stood. My chest ached and my forearms were sore, trembling, as if I’d been sleeping on them for hours. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I could see Mr. Dubcheck standing, his forehead and upper lip bright with sweat, his thinning hair a chaotic spray across the top of his head like a mop. He breathed heavily, as if just coming from a jog, chest heaving up and down.

“Jesus Christ, Jeremy. What the fuck are you doing?”

I began to blur. I realized I couldn’t answer him, even if I wanted to. The questions I’d held in my head for Mr. Dubcheck, all of them about my father, suddenly seemed foolish and desperate. Childish. The notebook and pen slid from my hands and fell to the carpet with a slap. I stared at the floor and the mattress began to blur with my shoes, turning into a mass of wet shapes, a coil of colors.

“Jeremy,” he said, his voice softer, almost kind. “Are you all right?”

He had placed a hand on my shoulder and before I knew what I was doing, I drifted forward, close, into his chest, into the center of him. I laid the side of my head against his shirt, as if I were placing my ear on the ground, listening for some distant thunder. He did not retract. From there, I could see the peaks and valleys of his wrinkled shirt. He smelled of cigarettes. A lung full of smoke. And after a long moment, he raised his arms, and I could feel his hands ruffle my hair. It was a place, I realized, where I could close my eyes. It was a place where I could sleep.    

return to top