I smell the life of trees and the mystery of night seeping in through clapboards and eaves of Papaw’s old wooden house, though I’m not old enough to put it in words like that. My father and I are sharing a bed upstairs in a room barely big enough to fit a bed. The slanted ceiling cramps the low end of the room, but the end by the stairs is tall enough for an adult to stand. Depending on who’s visiting, sharing beds and shuffling room arrangements at Papaw’s house is both common and a communal adventure managed by my mom and the aunts.
Illumined by a bed-lamp attached to the headboard, Dad is reading True Detective and I am reading a comic book. I feel safe and the big space in my head is comfortably filled with the antics of cartoon characters. Then Dad closes his magazine. I know what that means.
“Time to go to bed,” he says. Only decades later will it occur to me that I am the reason it’s time to go to bed – adults can stay up as long as they like, but kids need sleep so they will grow up properly into adults. I put my comic book on the night table.
“Good night,” he says.
Dad pulls the aluminum bead chain on the bed-lamp and now the room is pitch-black, but Dad is warm beside me and his smell is comforting. After only a few minutes, his breathing changes and I know he’s falling asleep. It won’t be that way for me. I never just fall asleep. When the lights go out, the urgency in my attention ramps up and my mind spins like a top.
I study the empty blackness that hovers in this room, searching for life that might be hidden there. Suddenly, a shard of moonlight piercing the darkness appears on the wall. Then, after a bit, it recedes. I prop myself up on one elbow, careful not to shake the bed, and look over my shoulder out the window. Clouds cover the moon like hands over a face.
Dad is snoring. It’s a song, each verse building into a crescendo, then a gentle sigh as the wave recedes to the sea. Successive rounds get louder until finally the noise half-wakes him up and the snoring collapses. After a few minutes, the snoring starts again.
The darkness in the room rubs against me like new shoes that are still stiff. My cousins, aunts, everyone else – they’ve all have fallen asleep while I, alone, keep a meaningless vigil. I listen to the tick-tock of the big pendulum clock downstairs. It sits on a shelf over the TV that we mostly can’t watch because Knoxville and Cincinnati, the nearest cities big enough to have TV stations, are too far away for the antennae to pick up unless the weather is just right.
Papaw’s house is filled with clocks because he collects them. I love to watch him take them apart with tiny tools, oil the wheels, and put them back together. He keeps his tools in a special cigar box along with sprockets, springs, tiny screws, and a soft cloth.
I hear a second clock ticking, fainter. The clocks are keeping vigil with me. I feel less alone, as if the clocks are people, The rhythm is broken by the winding sound of a clock hammer cocking and the chimes begin. Bong, bong, bong! The big clock’s chime is the loudest, so I focus on it and count down the hours. When it finishes, the others are still going, clocks in every room where people don’t sleep. I listen as they finish up. As the last chime recedes, another clock
starts striking, a careless child who fell behind and hurries to catch up.
Finally, the chimes are done. I am back in my body, calmer. I turn over on my side and draw close to my face the clean bedsheet smelling of laundry detergent and clotheslines. I listen to the steady tick-tock of the clocks, a lullaby that I know will play all night, even after I fall asleep, heartbeats moving the night forward in a safe and contained way.
Mike Wilson's work has appeared in magazines including Fiction Southeast, Deep South Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post and Anthology of Appalachian Writers Vol. X. He’s author of Arranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic (Rabbit House Press, 2020), political poetry for a post-truth world. He resides in Central Kentucky and can be found at mikewilsonwriter.com