by George Potter
He had this habit. Call it a ritual, call it an obsession, but he did it every night.
Just before midnight, no matter what time he fell asleep, early or late, he found himself perfectly awake, perfectly aware.
Sometimes it seemed as if a dream had just ended, or a sharp sound had roused him, but it was always the same feeling that coiled there in his heart and gut, the same anxious sadness that pushed him from the bed no matter the temperature, and drove him outside.
There he'd stand, ignoring the roused and vocal curiosity of the neighborhood dogs and the cold or the heat or the rain or the judgmental face of the moon or the threat of sleek grey clouds rumbling at him.
He'd orient himself north, pulled like a magnet to true north or a Muslim toward Mecca, and say:
With the words spoken, the spell would lift, and his previous sleepiness would return, on the worst of nights drastically, and with the added effects of alcohol or maybe a couple pain killers.
The grief that had roused him and drew him outside for the simple but inescapable ritual would shimmer and fade and be replaced by something almost like content.
Usually he'd make his way back inside, the surging ocean of sleep he'd abandoned tugging at him with it's numb undertow, collapse into bed, and return to a dreamless sleep.
Every single night, without fail, for almost three years now.
Every morning he'd wonder if he'd dreamed it, and push the thought aside as unimportant, only certain that he'd find out again the following night.
* * *
He had this job at the department store. It wasn't a great job, but it wasn't bad, either. It paid poorly, but the work was easy, and surprisingly not boring. His boss liked the fact that he never missed a day and was only late for unavoidable reasons. He did a little bit of everything, from stocking the shelves to cleaning up, to running a register when he was called on to do that. He didn't mind; it kept things from getting so tedious, never knowing exactly what he was going to be up to on any given day.
He liked the people he worked with, too. Especially Linda, who was also sort of his boss, at least outranking him. Linda was a chubby brunette with shy eyes and a pretty smile, and a quiet laugh that she seemed to reserve for things that really amused her. She didn't toss her laugh out there for any old thing, didn't let it wear itself out on polite usage so that it was hollow. He liked that a lot. He didn't have much time for people who faked even the little things.
A few days before the big Christmas sale was supposed to start, Linda asked him if he'd like to catch a little overtime helping her do routine maintenance on Registers six through ten. They were a big store in a pretty small town, and Christmas was about the only time they ever had to crank up more than five registers. Since he could always use the time and a half, and since he always liked to spend some time with Linda, he agreed right off. It gave him an odd little feeling, the way her eyes lit up when he told her yes. He actually blushed a little.
He felt unusually happy as he drove home that night, thinking about Linda's eyes and the hours he'd get to spend with her in a big quiet store, and how he'd try to get her to spare him a few of those rare and sweet trickles of laughter.
Since he had his paycheck, he stopped by the grocery. They were always happy to cash his check because they knew he was going to immediately wire half of it through the Western Union setup they boasted. It was the only Western Union in town, and he was their best customer.
He filled out the form, passed over the money and the fee, and took his receipt and the good wishes of the assistant manager. He folded the receipt carefully and placed it in the vinyl zippered bank bag he kept under the passenger seat, where it joined all the others from the past year. In a few weeks, it would be crammed full, and he'd have to transfer them to the beat up little file cabinet in his bedroom, and begin studiously refilling it. It was all part of the ritual.
As usual, the ritual--and the thought of the money transformed into a pattern of electrical code and humming safely and instantly hundreds of miles north to where it was needed and owed--filled him with a sense of satisfaction and the warm glow that only doing the right thing can bring.
When he got home, he heated up some leftovers for supper and made his weekly phone call.
"Hello?" came the answer.
"Hi, it's just me." He said. It was the thing he always said. "Just letting you know that I sent the money." He read her the transfer control number and she wrote it down, just to be on the safe side. Then, again as usual, he said "I figure she's asleep, huh?"
"Yeah. She had a party at school today and had gymnastics after. She was worn out. Can you call her tomorrow?"
"Of course. What time should I call?"
"Anytime after noon. We're going grocery tomorrow, but we'll be back early."
"Okay." He said. "You give her a kiss for me."
"I always do." she said. "Goodnight."
"Goodnight." Then he hung up the phone.
Same as it ever was, ritual complete, no room for despair, no need for guilt. Or not much. There was always a tinge of the old feeling, when the line went dead and even that tenuous link sparked out. He sighed, ate his dinner, and took a shower.
* * *
As he was getting ready for bed, he found that he couldn't stop thinking about Linda. Suddenly, the idea of spending those hours alone with her in the empty store took on a seductive aspect. He tried to push the thoughts away, but they had a force he hadn't counted on. A sort of montage of her invaded his mind, completely innocent memories of sights and sounds that suddenly took on a sheen of desire that he'd blocked out and ignored for years. Last Christmas when she'd gotten buzzed at the party and hugged him and kissed him right on the lips out of the blue, then blushed and laughed. The Halloween when she'd dressed as a vampire and he'd spent the entire day trying as best he could not to stare at her cleavage. The cold jealousy he now realized had haunted him for the two weeks she'd dated one of their co-workers. The way she smelled, of soap and clean skin and some vaguely apple scented shampoo. The way she'd sing along to certain songs when working a shift in the electronics department.
Her eyes, that rare laugh.
He finally fell asleep, trapped between discomfort, anxiety, and an oddly wonderful feeling that he had thought he'd never feel again.
* * *
He had a dream about her--not a sex dream, or even a particularly memorable dream. It seemed that they were on a date, eating dinner at the restaurant he treated himself to on his birthday. She was pretty, dressed up, and seemed excited. Her eyes glowed. He felt nervous, like at any moment something horrible was going to happen, something....
...a phone began to ring.
The scene shifted and shuddered, warped and dissolved as the dream vaporized into the dark confines of his bedroom and the sound of a phone demanding attention. He struggled up and his eyes lit instinctively on the swimming red digital numbers of his bedside clock.
It read 2:30 am.
He was halfway reaching across the clock for the phone when the import of those numbers suddenly sank in. For the first time in going on three years he had not been pulled from sleep. He had not made his way outside to orient like a compass to the north. He had not obeyed the ritual.
He had not said good night.
He clutched the phone to his head, stopping its plaintive cry.
"Hello?" he said, in a voice thick and alien.
"God, I'm sorry to wake you," she said, sounding a bit panicked. "but she won't stop crying. She keeps saying something about you not saying goodnight! It's scaring the hell out of me! She doesn't seem to be running a fever but...."
He could hear his daughter weeping in the background. Guilt slammed him, waking adrenaline, smashing him awake. "Never mind." he said. "Put her on."
She came to the phone still crying. She muttered some words he could not make out in a tone of pure hurt that made his heart ache.
"Baby! I'm sorry! It won't ever happen again!"
More crying, more incomprehensible words. She was only four. Words were not her strong suit. The emotion destroyed them.
He forced himself to be calm. "What do you want, my darling? What do you want daddy to do?"
The crying leveled out. She finally said, in a shuddering little voice:
"Sing it. Sing."
He knew instantly what she meant. She wanted her lullaby, the song he'd made up for her in the womb, when he'd first been informed of her presence in the universe. The song he'd sang with his face to his ex wife's belly, the song he'd sang to her the night she was born, the song he'd sang to her until he'd been forced away from her by the sheer fact that he simply could not get along with her mother.
He sang it for her, in a broken poor voice, no tune, all feeling.
It was a simple song--about rivers and love, and her and him, daughters and daddies and how the world kept rolling, and other important nonsense.
He sang it to her and remembered the beauty of her birth, and the joy he'd felt in holding her, and the power she had made him feel.
He remembered the pain as well, the realization that he and her mother were basically incompatible, the cold truth that the best thing he could do was go away and send money and never ever let her forget him.
He sang and her tears dried. He sang until she finally laughed. He sang until she yawned. Then he said: "Goodnight, baby."
And she said "Goodnight, daddy."
He spoke to her mother briefly after that, they made simple grateful noises at each other, blamed it on a bad dream and wished each other a good night.
He hung up the phone and sighed. He knew what he had to do. He rolled over and went to sleep.
There were no dreams.
* * *
He worked his shift the next day with a heavy dread. Linda paid more attention to him than usual. She had dressed really nice, and had obviously done her hair. At lunch she had even grabbed his hand briefly and squeezed it.
All it did was make things harder.
Finally the store closed, and the moment arrived. They were alone.
It was at the first register that she brought it up, apparently wanting to get it over with.
"Look, I sort of had an... ulterior motive... asking you to stay tonight." Her face was flushed and she was a hair away from trembling.
He nodded, lamely, afraid to speak.
"Not to be rude, but why have you never asked me out?" she blurted. Paused, blushed, forged ahead. "I mean... I tried to let you know! I tried to be... like... obvious... and...."
"I can't." he said.
She just looked confused. "Why not?" There was hurt in the voice. It all went south after that.
"I have a daughter."
She giggled, a fake forced giggle that hit him like a blow. It wasn't her laugh. It was the sudden insertion of the fake into their relationship--caused by him. He was hurting her and he knew it, and like any other living creature she was throwing up a shield.
"Of course I know that, doofus. You talk about her constantly. It's one of the reasons I like you so much." She paused a beat and then rushed ahead. "It's out of line but to hell with it.... I know how much money you send her every week, too. It's a small town we live in. These things get gossiped. I admire you." She swallowed hard and went all the way. "Dammit," she almost whispered, "I'm crazy about you."
He just stood there, like a poleaxed steer. But he didn't waver. He looked into her utterly serious, utterly vulnerable eyes and laid the hammer down, feeling like a creep, but responding to deeper priorities.
"I can't. Listen to me. My daughter is the only thing in my life that matters. She matters more than I do. You don't have a child. You can never understand. In a certain sense she owns me."
She started to protest and he cut her off.
"She owns me. She is the reason I work. She is the reason I eat. She is the reason I get up in the morning. She is the reason I don't give up. She is the reason I stock these shelves. Everything else is a distraction from that purpose."
Linda's eyes began to tear, but he forced himself on, despite screaming compassion in half his heart.
"Distraction that I won't allow. I'm sorry. You are a wonderful woman, but the simple truth is that my heart, my soul, my self... is taken."
She nodded, eyes hard. She gave him another fake laugh, said "Whatever." and they began the maintenance.
The rest of the night passed in awkward silence. They did their work. Words were few. Linda moved stiffly and angrily, muttering to herself on occasion. When they finished, locked up, and were heading for their cars she gave him a withering lookay and said "Goodnight." Then turned and strode towards her vehicle.
"Linda..." he called out.
She ignored him. She got into her car, slammed the door, and roared away.
He stood there for a moment, feeling the fool. Feeling the ass. Feeling human. Then he sighed, and climbed into his own car. It threatened not to start. He babied it. Stupid twenty-year-old car. It finally caught and he headed for home.
* * *
He ate, showered, and prepared for bed. One paranoid corner of his mind wanted to set the alarm before midnight, but the soul overrode that idiocy. The connection happens. It's as real as magnetism, as real as the fact of the stars.
He lay down and wished he could have handled the Linda thing better. But it didn't matter.
He turned off the light and closed his eyes. After a bit, he slept.
* * *
She always looked forward to this moment. Bathed, fed, tired from an exciting day, it was time to sleep and dream. In her dreams she always met her daddy.
She passed the invisible wall and there he was! Waiting for her as he always was! What fun!
They ignored the laws of physics, and went hand in hand to the stars. They fought dragons and spoke to elves. They danced amongst the trees and held council with the folk of the forest. They drew swords and fought off dark armies to save the innocent princess, and had ambrosia and nectar for breakfast. They protected the weak from the mean and swore oaths to the kindest of Gods. They lived.
She looked at her daddy through dream eyes and loved him. He looked at her with strikingly real eyes and all she felt was love.
Then she knew it was time to say goodnight. She nestled into the cloudlike blankets of the dream. She said "Goodnight, Daddy." and waited.
* * *
He woke up exactly on time and staggered outside, feeling that this moment was the most important thing he had ever done.
He ignored the chorus of barks from the neighbor dogs, stared into the face of the judgmental moon, shivered in the winter air. He found true north and faced it.
Around him the universe screamed, pure chaos pretending to be order. Money turned to electricity, life surged and sang, people cried about silly nonsense, and in the deep folds of the universe he struck out and found his daughter's hand, kissed it as a princess deserves, let the lullaby of the universe wash over him, and laughed with great joy.
Then he said:
* * *
Copyright 2005, George Potter
George Potter currently resides in Mississippi, where he complains about the heat, writes daily, and watches cats play.