BY: Severin AllGood
It’s Christmas Day and you lie in bed between two girls, but not in a hot, Cinemax After Dark type of way. More in the sense that you all took too many Xanax after you left the bar and passed out together fully clothed. The one girl’s room is a mess. Dirty dishes and overturned ashtrays are scattered around. Half-empty beer bottles with cigarette butts floating in them. Moldy to-go containers from every delivery place in a three-mile radius. Even huddled together with these two, you’re still freezing. You wonder if the house has heat. Winter in Portland is no place to be without heat.
You spent last night at the Water Trough with a clientele that was half hipster and half old drunk. The girls kept referring to the old lushes as “weird-ass whiteys.” You’re sure the septuagenarian sucking on her dentures and drinking Hamm’s at the end of the bar thought the same of you. You played shuffleboard and drank cheap keg beer. You lost five dollars to video poker and smoked two packs of cigarettes. You’ve woken up starving and want to get home. According to the relic of an alarm clock, it’s one in the afternoon. You compose yourself and leave the two sleepers in bed. Their backs are to each other, and they’re curled in the fetal position. You stagger down the front stairs and out of the house. The sky is overcast but still the daylight burns your eyes. You start the six-block walk back to your house.
You have to eat. Looking and feeling half dead, you stumble into the Plaid Pantry, which is one of your favorite things to do in your quickly gentrifying neighborhood. The expression of the guy who rings up your breakfast burrito is one of irritation, but the frightened look you get from the yoga mom buying Kombucha is priceless. You want to assure her that the precious bundle of joy she’s pushing around in that Eddie Bauer jogging stroller probably won’t end up like you. Probably.
The Plaid Pantry is only a block from your house. Which is good—sleeping in a freezing house, even on Xanax, hasn’t left you feeling as refreshed as you’d like. You have trouble forming a complete sentence when you pay. The guy behind the cash register takes your money like he doesn’t want to touch what you’ve touched. But you don’t mind. You inhale your burrito. You climb the stairs to your room and don’t bother getting undressed. The comforter is a cocoon around you and your clothes that reek of stale cigarette smoke. You crank the space heater next to the bed. Its comforting hum lulls you to sleep.
The inability to wake from your nightmares began a few weeks ago. It seemed to coincide with your roommate’s telling you about his father, who died of schizophrenia in a Vermont mental hospital. He claims his dad’s ghost followed him out to Oregon. You investigate being unable to wake from sleep. You discover sleep demons and their various incarnations. The Filipino Batibat spirits are ugly, obese women who sit on their sleeping victims’ chests and faces. Mara, the word from which “nightmare” is derived, plants herself on sleepers’ chests and causes unpleasant dreams and sometimes death. The Cajuns call it witch riding when the night hag visits them. She rides sleepers’ chests and crushes out their breath, and the hag is followed by bad smells and strange shadows. You wonder why all these creatures feel the need to straddle the chest. Seems like a quick throat choke would work just as well. The Russian Nocnitsa and the Latvian Lietuvēns are more of the same. The chest sitting might be erotic if it weren’t so terrifying. You don’t believe in ghosts, you think, so you read about sleep paralysis, the scientific explanation. The main culprit is REM sleep, which involves dreaming and paralysis that is more likely to occur when someone is waking up. The brain stem paralyzes the body by inhibiting motor neurons. When someone experiences sleep paralysis, dreaming occurs while a person is conscious, with their eyes open. The dreams are hallucinations, as vivid as anything you’d see when you’re awake. You may not only see things, but hear and feel them too.
Now there is a pressure on your chest and you can’t seem to break out of the dreamlike state you’re in. There’s someone holding you down. You struggle to wake even though your eyes are open. Your heart races and you inhale deeply. Is your roommate’s dad’s ghost fucking with you while you sleep? It probably has more to do with the large amounts of alcohol and narcotics you consumed last night. Now you’re having an anxiety attack. You wish you’d saved one of those Xanax.
You think a shower will calm you down, so for twenty minutes you let near-scalding water cascade over your body. You’re still anxious. You need a drink. You decide to go ahead and leave for the Christmas party at your buddy Beamer’s. He lives with his girlfriend, Gretchen, whose voice’s pitch is somewhere between Minnie Mouse and a Munchkin from Oz. She keeps trying to mold Beamer into what her ideal man would be, which she is failing quite spectacularly at. He is thirty-five years old, ten years older than she is, and has been doing whatever he wanted his whole adult life. You picked up a bottle of rum as a present for him yesterday. It’s made by a company called Cabana Boy and has a picture of a glistening, muscle-bound beefcake on it. Beamer and Gretchen’s apartment is a short walk from your house. You can hear Gretchen’s piercing tones as you knock on the door. Beamer answers. He’s wearing a crisp, white western shirt.
“What’s up, corncob?” he says.
“Hey, buddy. I brought you this sweet present. I hope you don’t have one already.” You hand him the bottle and he doubles over in laughter.
“Where did you find this?” he manages to ask between cackles.
“Liquor store up on Hawthorne.”
He invites you in, and you see the spread Gretchen must’ve been working on all day. She’s part Cuban, and that part of her knows how to cook. The table is filled with ham, chorizo stuffing, salads, bread, and wine. You are taken aback that Gretchen’s grandparents are here.
You bring up sleep demons and paralysis at dinner. Gretchen calls you crazy. Beamer just laughs. Gretchen’s grandmother tells you about the Moncada Barracks back in Cuba. You learn this was the site of Castro’s first revolutionary attack on the government. The grandmother’s first husband, Juan, was stationed there the night Castro raided. Juan never even made it out of his cot. They executed him while he slept. The grandmother fled Cuba when Castro took power.
“Castro was a demon. El demonio,” she says.
“He wasn’t so bad,” the grandfather says. “Maybe a bit of a marica.” He chuckles.
“Says you. You never had to bury your husband. You and your good-time amigos. We’re lucky we got out alive.”
“Cállate.” The grandfather points to the bottle of Cabana Boy. “In Cuba we had good rum. Real rum. Let me have a taste.”
“Don’t give this old alcohólico even a sip. He will be unbearable.” She slaps his hand like a disobedient child’s. “You know before we leave Cuba, this bastardo got la gonorrea from the town whore. I was so embarrassed. I wished I was dead.”
Gretchen has her face in her hands. You smile and feel bad for the old man. You hope you never have to live with someone who so obviously hates you.
There is a show at a rock club up the street you want to go to. You tell Beamer and try to get him out the door. Gretchen overhears.
“No. You’re not going anywhere with him. You always come home wasted when you guys go out. Plus, my grandparents are here.” Gretchen dated your old roommate, Paul, and still blames you for their breakup. Did you make him get blackout drunk all those times and piss her bed? You’d met Gretchen first. You chatted her up at the bar. Bought her a few drinks. You made a pass. She declined. Your pride was wounded, but you tried to shake it off. The night Paul came home with her to your apartment, you were more than wounded. Jealous wasn’t the word. Spiteful. You felt Paul could do better, because now you resent her. You told him so the next morning. You and Paul have always had a close relationship. Best friends since high school. You even joked that your lives would be so much simpler if you both were gay. No more hateful girlfriends. No more broken hearts. You already lived together and shared clothes. If only one of you had been born with a vagina.
“Baby, I’m just going for a little while,” Beamer says. “Christopher is coming by to pick us up. He’s married. His wife will freak out if he stays out too late.” He gives her the best innocent look he can muster.
“Well, I guess if Christopher is going—but don’t make a bunch of noise when you come back in.” She forces what looks like a smile and sits down next to her grandma. Christopher’s wife moved out six months ago because he is a complete fucking mess.
You pile into your buddy Brian’s van. He’s referred to as Frankenbrian a lot of the time, because he is six foot five and has a giant flat forehead. There are no seats in the back of the van. You all sit on the floor, which is painful considering you were not blessed with any semblance of an ass. It’s a short ride to the club, and as you pull up beside it, Christopher busts out a bag of blow, his love of freebasing one of the factors that motivated his wife to move out. When he comes to your house, you have to hide the tinfoil and light bulbs. You’ve snorted cocaine plenty of times, but you’ve never had any interest in smoking it. Until now. The bottle of wine you had with dinner is telling you that inhaling the cloud of smoke off this strip of tinfoil is going to be a genius idea. You breathe in and the smoke burns. It’s not like tobacco or weed smoke. It’s sharp and pointy and cuts your lungs. The head rush is an out-of-body experience. You feel weightless, as though you are floating in the van, which is now a celestial heaven padded in stained blue carpet. You stand up to climb out the sliding door, but your knees are weak.
“Shit.” You wobble onto the sidewalk, and Beamer puts his arm around you.
Time flies. You’ve been in the club for nearly four hours. Snorted enough cocaine to make your nostrils bright red and irritated. The lights come on. You ask the bartender for one more beer.
“No, no, no,” he says. “You guys are done. Time to go home.”
You and Beamer leave out the back door. There’s a metal gate that leads to the alley, and as you walk through it, you slice your hand on a jagged piece of chain-link. Your alcohol-thinned blood begins to flow like a river from the cut. In this inebriated state, you have trouble discerning what is happening to your hand. You reach out and grab Beamer’s shirt.
“Jesus, man. What the hell are you doing?” he asks. You look up at the clock on a Columbia Bank sign. It’s 2:45 AM.
“Will Gretchen count this as late?” you ask.
Gretchen is sitting on the couch watching TV. It looks like the infomercial with two dwarf brothers who claim to be real estate moguls.
“I thought you said you wouldn’t be home late.” Her tone is hushed but angry. “And what happened to your shirt? Is that blood?”
“This genius cut his hand and bled all over me. Everything is fine. You can go to bed. We’re going to hang out.” He gives you a smirk and a wink.
“Oh no you’re not.”
“Relax,” you tell her, and pick up the bottle of rum. “We’re gonna break open this righteous bottle of Cabana Boy and have some rum and Cokes.” Before you can twist the cap off, she is on you. She grabs your right arm and puts it in a half nelson. “Jesus,” you say. This tiny woman has the strength of what feels like forty men. She pushes you toward the door and in one fluid motion shoves you out. You’re reminded of when you first met—the look of contempt as she scrunched her nose and mouth into a frown and shook her head like a metronome on meth, your dismay at being rejected with such haste.
On the front steps of their apartment building, you enjoy your first swig of Cabana Boy. Its coconut flavor tastes like suntan oil, if it were licked off the leather skin of a retired Miami divorcée. Yet you sit alone on these steps and drink, ruminating on the nature of sleep demons. Your irrational fear of slumber. Or is it the physical act of falling asleep that frightens you? The dread of closing your eyes and being alone with your thoughts—thoughts of missed opportunities and wasted chances, unrequited love, an inextinguishable and indescribable sense of loss.
You remember a nightmare from childhood. There was a man who jogged through your neighborhood. Red hair. Mustache. He’d never said two words to you. In the dream, he caught you cowering beneath a privet hedge. You remember the bag he shoved you in. That olive-green kind the Army used. You remember the inside of that bag. Dark and sweaty. In the dream, you wondered where your parents were. Why hadn’t they found you? You’re not sure how long the dream lasted. You woke up in a panic and would wince whenever you saw the man outside.
First, there is the sense of terror at not remembering how your night ended. Then bewilderment and frustration. Finally, despair. You’re on a floor that is carpeted and has given your face a nice burning rash. You realize you somehow made it home. You struggle to rise. There are fresh holes in one of your bedroom walls. Your cell phone has a voice mail. Silence, followed by the sound of your own, slurred voice: “Fuck you. I don’t like the way you look. You know you’re a piece of shit.” Followed by the sound of what you can only imagine are the holes being punched in the wall. You recorded your fight with the wall. Beautiful.
Now you see it. Perched next to your pillow on the mattress. His sculpted, glistening body a perfection of humanity. He looks down at you. Mocking you. Cabana Boy.
Severin Allgood was born in Atlanta, and spent time in Denver, Seattle, Portland, and Tuscaloosa, before finally landing in Memphis, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. His work has appeared in Glint Literary Journal, Rubbertop Review, Crow Hollow 19, and the University of Memphis Magazine. Severin is a Leo and enjoys old Simpsons repeats, Seinfeld quotes, and books on tape. He teaches composition at Christian Brothers University.