The midnight disease is a kind of emotional insomnia; at every conscious moment its victim—even if he or she writes at dawn, or in the middle of the afternoon—feels like a person lying in a sweltering bedroom, with the window thrown open, looking up at a sky filled with stars and airplanes, listening to the narrative of a rattling blind, an ambulance, a fly trapped in a Coke bottle, while all around him the neighbors soundly sleep. This is in my opinion why writers—like insomniacs—are so accident-prone, so obsessed with the calculus of bad luck and missed opportunities, so liable to rumination and a concomitant inability to let go of a subject, even when urged repeatedly to do so.
~Michael Chabon, Wonder Boys
Last night I crossed paths with a guy I used to work for. Mine was a sales position, where every weekday, and Saturdays, I was to fan out across Nashville with a band of similarly-programmed individuals, and attempt to sell AT&T bundle packages door-to-door to small businesses for their internet and long distance service. This was back in 2008, and coincided with my period of itinerant homelessness. I slept under weeping willows at the business park where I and all the other 20-30-something young males met every morning for the ritual psych-up. Baby Got Back and like-minded high-energy tracks were blasted from a $30 Wal-Mart CD player, and we yelled at each other things like “You can’t be stopped!” and “No, YOU can’t be stopped, you invincible motherfucker!”
The guy had a wife and a baby daughter with him, and a shopping cart full of exterior rubber landscaping tiles. He wanted to know if, in my professional opinion, a standard box cutter would work efficiently and effectively to cut the tiles. Then he recognized me. We shook hands. His grip was weak. We remembered each other then but I didn’t know his name. He had the upper hand in name remembrance, in that my name was emblazoned across my chest, as is customary for a retail clerk of my position. His name wasn’t emblazoned across his chest. Never was.
He looked merely slightly different, these six years later, but only inasmuch that it was the first time I had ever seen him not wearing a suit and tie. He asked me how long I’d been in my current occupation. I knew why he asked me that as soon as the sentence was just beginning to leave his mouth. He asked me how long I’d been doing what I was doing because the last time we’d talked, six years ago, it was just the two of us in his corner office, mere minutes before the psych-up meeting. He was, as I remember, wearing a suit and tie. He’d said that he had to level with me. I’d looked behind him, out the wide windows of his corner office. The branches of a willow tree were softly scraping on the panes. He had said he didn’t think this was the right fit for me. He said that besides the numbers and my lack of them, I was an obvious outlier, bad for morale. Everybody knows you change clothes in the bathroom every morning and afternoon when we meet back up, he said. The other guys are noticing, he said, and it’s bad for morale.
My changing clothes in the bathroom is bad for morale? I asked. He messed with his ring finger. There was still a distinct tan line where a ring no longer existed. Look, I said, if there’s only one thing you can relate to me about, it’s that. I looked at his hands, with all obviousness. He knew what I was referring to and immediately put his arms down, his hands out of sight behind his broad, cheap wood replica desk. He set his jaw and looked at his lap. Then he told me that it killed him to have to make the determination he was having to make. He looked like he was having trouble not crying. I wanted to ask him how he held everything together the way he did, to ask him to let me in on the secret to pressing ahead when everything falls apart around your head. I knew from personal experience that it wasn’t easy to keep things floating when all you felt like was drowning, and just fighting to keep your airways above water seemed like more trouble than it was worth—that it was easier to die than to engage even the most meager effort at survival, let alone the taking of the world, unstoppable motherfuckers or not.
I stood up.
I’ve been sleeping in that stand of trees by the overpass, I said, pointing over his shoulder. I wanted him to know exactly which stand of trees I was talking about, so I pointed. I stopped sleeping there, moved to the golf course off of Galatin last week, specifically to prevent this having to happen, I said. But I guess the clothes-changing did me in anyway. You can’t rightly sleep on the ground in a suit and then expect the suit to be even halfway decent for walking into offices the next day, I said. Then I left, pulled my duffel bag from the janitor’s closet, and went back into the bathroom to change clothes again for the second time in less than 20 minutes. His daughter’s name, he told me last night, is Auburn. She turns one year old next month. Continue reading