For the sake of the Gentle Friend
who sleeps not by night, do the same!
Entrust your heart to Him and sleep not!
It’s the third night of my visit with Mot: my friend who is also a homeless man who wanders from place to place, and is currently living in a battered old car he parks at night in the lots of the Walmarts of Amarillo, Texas. We are spending a week together in the KOA Campground, trying to see if we can keep the friendship alive in spite of his need to always keep on the move. The rich steakhouse dinner we treated ourselves to earlier this evening doesn’t sit well. I spend the night creeping back and forth between the cabin and the large, communal bathrooms of the campground. Careful not to wake Mot, I search in the dark for my left shoe, my jacket. Under the red and black blanket, in the bottom bunk on the other side of the cabin, Mot sleeps on his belly like a baby in a crib–one hand by his face, the other tossed far out to the side. His breathing is soft and shallow; he doesn’t snore. He is peaceful. Nothing suggests that he’s battling demons or reliving old terrors. But he is. He has warned me that the Others, the collective name for the voices he hears which direct his days, launch their real assault against him at night and not to be frightened if he calls out in his sleep or seems to struggle. He has been told that he screams and thrashes around in his sleep. But here in Amarillo, he doesn’t fight at all. Instead, he’s unnaturally still.
I curl up in my bed and try to imagine Mot’s dreams. Watching him fills me with an aching tenderness, a little maternal and dangerously close to love. I’m afraid for him; I tell myself often that Mot has lived this long without me and will get along just fine when I am gone, but it’s a lie. Just fine isn’t how he has gotten along at all. I don’t let myself think about how it will be when it’s time for me to go. Instead, I watch him sleep and try to imagine the world I know only from what he tells me in the mornings over coffee.
Mot believes that we all share the same dreamscape and that when I appear in his dreams, I am me, acting with volition, and that when I awake I will remember everything that happened. He holds me accountable. This worries and fascinates me. So far, he has told me of only two dreams that include me, and in both I helped him defeat the Others in some nocturnal battle for control of the following day. Together, he says, we were able to hold Them at bay. I suspect that this is part of the trick–if I’m an ally now, then later, when the illness creates dreams in which I betray him, it will be more hurtful–and so I don’t take credit for whatever help he thinks I’ve given. “That’s not me, no matter what They say, you know,” I argue, but he won’t listen. He tells me to read Jung if I won’t take his word for it.
When the sun finally rises, I walk to the pool. After a night of lying quietly awake, I crave movement and noise. When I dive into the pool, cold water snaps the tiredness out of my bones; my head clears with the splash of each stroke. At home I won’t swim, too vain to expose my pale, middle-aged body. Here, anonymity defeats my vanity. I spend the morning gliding through the water until I’m empty-headed and my muscles are loose and warm. Between sets of laps I rest on a towel laid against the already warm concrete. When I can’t swim anymore and my skin is pink and tender, I gather my things and walk back to the cabin.
Mot has laid out a breakfast of coffee and papaya. He hands me a cup as I walk onto the porch. “I think you should put stevia in it,” he says. “I picked some up at the health food store yesterday because you should stop using that chemical stuff.”
He wrinkles his nose and gestures to the box of Splenda on the picnic table. Mot suggests, but he rarely demands. He doesn’t think I should use the sweetener, but he has set it out anyway. “I mean, have you read the studies on this stuff? They say the scientists who develop artificial sweeteners won’t use it. Something about the molecules. It’s a conspiracy–Big Business just wants to trick you into buying something you don’t need.”
This sounds delusional, with its conspiracies and paranoia, but several months ago I’d read an article in The New Yorker that mentioned researchers who avoided Splenda.
I’m always conflicted when Mot buys some small thing for me. My gratitude is tinged with guilt when he spends any of the small income he gets from Social Security every month on some trinket that I could easily buy myself, or that I don’t want. His money is deposited in an account in Vermont, where he was living when he turned sixty-five, and he accesses it with a debit card he hides in the folds of his old wool blanket. This ingenuity, this surprising ability to survive what seems to me an unsurvivable life, is part of what draws me to Mot. And so, although I find stevia bitter, I use it in my coffee for the rest of the trip.
“How did you sleep?” I ask, throwing a pair of shorts and my husband’s old denim shirt over my swimsuit. We sit down on the swing, balancing the plate of papaya chunks between us. The fruit, just past ripe, dissolves into sweet juice as soon as I bite down on it. It’s delicious, but it makes the stevia in the coffee taste that much more bitter.
“Lousy. Of course.” He rolls his eyes. “A lot going on up here. Mostly the Harpies, but also Dubja and Willie. Something’s up, but they won’t clue me in on what’s happening. That’s how things go. I’m not supposed to know anything.”
Since I’ve been here, the Harpies have dominated his dreams. A collective made up of all the women he has known, they speak as one and don’t seem to have any real power. The men in his mind give orders, make things happen. The women weep and beg.
“They can only manifest as animals on our plane of existence,” Mot explained when he first told me about the Harpies. “That’s why animals can talk to me, which is pretty scary. I mean, what does an animal have to say that I want to hear?” He also tells me they run a publishing house in the Northeast. I don’t ask how the two things could both be true; he’d have to find a way to explain it, and the explanation would become another layer of delusion. But I’m amused, imagining a publishing house run by housecats and shrews.
He sips his coffee and stares out at the cows in the nearby stockyard. “They say you’re a soul sister and they’re trying to warn you about the bad characters over here,” he says, gesturing upward with his thumb. “You know, that’s where you’ll end up if I outlive you. You’ll be one of them. Only don’t be like Harpies. They’re not nice women. Most of them just want to get laid–that’s why they’re always trying to turn me into a girl.” He sighs. “That’s what I like about you. You’re not a woman who gets a few drinks in her and says, ‘Let’s take off all our clothes!’ Kooks like that scare me.” He laughs and pats me on the knee.
“What I like about you is that you’re always telling me what you like about me,” I say, offering him the last piece of papaya, “and you make me breakfast.” I also like that sex is out of the question. Mot told me when we first met that he has been celibate for thirty years. He once saw a billboard along the highway with naked women bound and burning in a lake of fire with “Fornicators Will Burn for Eternity” emblazoned across the bottom. Fear of damnation, or of continued damnation, has kept him pure for decades. And because sex has been off the table all along, we are able to be friends without having to guard against it. “I’m going to do the dishes then shower. What do you say we drive out to the lake?”
“Can’t,” he says without explanation. Mornings are like this; his days are ruled by what happened in his dreams. Once in a while he will tell me why we can’t or must do a thing; most days I just take him at his word and don’t ask. “Let’s drive into town instead. There are some things I need to get at Wally World and this little bookstore I found while biking around the city, and there’s something I want to show you.”
We putter around the cabin. Mot unpacks and then repacks the trunk of his car. I try once again to arrange the month’s worth of clothes I’ve brought for this one-week trip on the one tiny hanging rod and shelf near my bed. It’s an impossible task. They end up folded back in my suitcase or draped over the posts of the upper bunk. Mot sleeps on the lower. My drindle skirts and summer shirts form a curtain that creates the only real privacy Mot has from me. I can imagine what the Big Guys Upstairs must think, though, about him sleeping under a canopy of cotton smocks and batik skirts. They say I gotta be a girl. Done deal.
It isn’t until well after noon that we drive into town. The knot I’ve been carrying around in my belly since the day I was attacked loosens a little with every hour we waste. The luxury of doing nothing soothes me, and I fall back into the gentle comfort of Mot’s company. For the year I have worked at Friendship Room, I’ve spent my days with people who either are angry with me or plain don’t like me and make certain I know it. I understand why, but it does its damage anyway. Mot’s fondness for me, the fact that he says he’s better for my presence, heartens me.
The bookstore is a charming, cramped place full of first editions and the smell of leather. Mismatched floral armchairs in ones and twos offer customers a place to sit and peruse. We could easily spend a happy day here, bringing books we’ve read to one another, recalling the comfort we’ve found in them. Both of us escape loneliness in fiction. But today we are purposeful, looking for a novel that Mot remembers well and talks of often.
“Do you have Leaf by Nigel?” he asks the elderly man at the desk by the door. He names an author I don’t know but the bookseller does. For a moment, they talk about his other works–novels that smack of Jack London and Herman Melville and don’t sound at all like the book Mot remembers.
“I can’t find anything,” the shop owner tells us, peering at his computer screen. “Are you sure about the title?”
Mot is, and he begins to recount the story of it. “Nigel is an artist who has spent his life painting a single picture, that of a tree. His neighbor, Parish, is a gardener. Somehow, the painter ends up in an institution, where he and Parish work together to make the forest more beautiful.” It sounds familiar to me, but I can’t place it. “It’s about friendship, and how after we are dead all the things we tried to do here we are able to do in the afterlife. Or at least, that’s the hope.” Mot looks at us expectantly.
“You mean ‘Leaf by Niggle,'” the man tells us. “It’s a short story by Tolkien. I don’t know if I have it, but I might. Let me look.”
He gets up to walk toward the Ts, but Mot stops him. “No, that’s not it. The one I want is a novel, and it’s called Leaf by Nigel. I’m sure of it.”
I remember the story now. I read it during my junior high school Tolkien phase. But there is a dangerous look on Mot’s face. He has talked about this book often, and it’s important to him; I don’t know how he would take being confronted with hard evidence that it isn’t as he remembers. Better, I think, not to find out.
“I’m sure he’s right,” I say to the shop owner, who is looking at us oddly now. “Thanks for your help, but we’ll just keep looking for Leaf by Nigel.” I try for an expression that says please don’t push this. “We’ll just look around for a while, if that’s okay.”
“Sure,” the man says. “Help yourself. But I’m pretty sure it’s a short story in The Tolkien Reader. Just wait here a moment while I find it.” Obviously, I wasn’t able to arrange my face in the right way to make him understand that he should drop it.
As he turns his back on us to find The Tolkien Reader, Mot pulls me out of the store by my arm. “Maybe he’s right,” he says as he leads me quickly toward the car, watching over his shoulder to be sure the shop owner hasn’t followed us. “I don’t know. I don’t care. But let’s get outta here. That guy is a nut!”
I know that of the three of us, the bookseller is undoubtedly the sanest. But this week Mot and I are a law unto ourselves, and this outsider is intruding on what we have agreed to believe is true. In the small world of Mot and me, this makes him dangerously crazy, and we run away from him, laughing.
SARAH EINSTEIN is the author of Mot: A Memoir, coming in September from the University of Georgia Press, Remnants of Passion (Shebooks 2014), and numerous essays and short stories. She is an Asst. Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. (@SarahEmc2)