As when an old film jumps in the projector,
You will be wading a dun hallway, rounding
A newel . . .
Richard Wilbur : “Walking to Sleep”
The tick tock clanging of a mail slot
is followed by a thud. At this ungodly hour?
A typewriter-written invitation lies at your feet.
The Insomniac’s Ball. Wednesday morning, one to five,
entertainment provided by Stan Kenton’s Big Band
reproduced mono on hi-fi. Regrets Only.
How do they know that you are one of them,
whoever they are? How do they know that at three a.m.
you tend to be tapping out trochees on a headboard?
The building isn’t as nice as you’d hoped. You rise to the third floor
caged in an elevator, the only passenger. The hall’s
somewhat seedy, the carpet worn, its roses faded.
You have been given the coded knock. The first six notes of the 2nd movement
of Beethoven’s Ninth. KNOCK knock, KNOCK knock, KNOCK knock.
The creaking door opening sounds like Bela Lugosi’s coffin
as your eyes adjust to a mazelike apartment, crowded but eerily quiet.
The Stan Kenton LP is scratched, the other guests preoccupied,
unfriendly, drifting through the rented rooms.
You peek through a door down the hall
and meet the stare of your dead grandfather,
the one whose room you used to tiptoe past,
a medicinal darkness reeking
of the Great Depression. As you escape, his memories
trail you like a shadow down the hall darkening
the passing stream of old folks, great aunts and former teachers,
rouged and wrinkled, mumbling to themselves,
some in bedroom slippers, others in stilettos.
The library’s quite impressive. A ladder runs along a rail
to reach the volumes way over your head: a textbook
in Sanskrit on Chinese mathematics you must master
to pass that class you’ve completely forgotten about!
a course you need for graduation!
You climb to the top reaching, but then look down
dizzyingly into a snakepit, concentric circles
spiraling with antlike companions from your youth,
descending, swirling, like bloody water down a drain . . .
There is a shrine for your departed lovers. On display
the beds where you once slept preserve the imprint of bodies.
Perhaps a long golden hair lies on the dented pillow,
but you’re not allowed to go beyond the red velvet ropes.
Where are they now – you wonder – what are they doing,
are they even alive, were they ever alive? You’re so
sleepy anything seems possible –
slants of light, cathedral tunes, leaden feet, riveted lips.
Couples waltz by mouthing one-two-three; one-two-three; one-two-three.
The oncoming day stretches out like a desert,
like the Bataan Death March, like life plus forty.
Thoughts of daytime responsibilities start to ricochet like billiard balls
without transition cold sheets, institutional whiteness, the ICU –
physicians and nurses whispering about your condition:
BEEP beep, BEEP beep, BEEP beep . . .
You ride the rented hearse of sleep home
to twisted sheets, to creeping light, to the bedside’s time bomb’s
tick tock tick tock tick