The words croak out through dust in my throat, “Help me.”
Across the table, the man is like a cold breeze. His voice laughs. “Help you, Joseph? After all I’ve already done for you?”
I lean. Lean over my coffee. Lean into my palm, wavering. “Please.”
“Of course. Joseph. Of course. But for what?”
“Anything. Whatever you want.”
He nods. Cool. Mr. Chill. “That’s good. That’s very good. I’m glad you came around. But I mean ‘for what’ in a more philosophical sense.” He rephrases the question in a deliberate staccato: “What will you do with the life I save?’”
I blink at the gravel in my eyes. Shake my head.
Mr. Chill’s lips go tight. “That’s what I was afraid of. Do you even know what I gave you? I gave you a third more life. A third. Instead of sixteen hours in a day, you now have twenty-four. What are you going to do with a third more time on earth?”
I bat at the air by my face. Something’s there. I can’t see it but I can feel it. A spider web, maybe. “Whatever you want me to.”
Chill catches my hand and places it like a live grenade on the table between us, his own hand atop it. “Listen to me. I can’t help you if you don’t help yourself.”
He turns my hand palm up, leaves two tablets. White. The size of aspirin. But not aspirin.
“Take these,” he says. “It won’t solve anything, but you will feel better. In the morning you report to this address. You lost your job. I have one for you.”
Mr. Chill writes on a napkin with the pen the waitress left.
“Don’t be late,” he says, rising and shrugging into his white, cotton blazer.
I watch the napkin and the pills in my hand. “What time?”
He’s at the door now, ready to leave the diner. He doesn’t turn around. “Morning.”
And he’s gone.
For a minute longer, I watch the gifts Mr. Chill left me. I swallow the pills and chase them with the ice water in the translucent plastic cup on the table. Then I crumple the napkin into my coat pocket.
I want to fall asleep right there in the diner. I don’t. In two minutes, I feel better.
I first met Mr. Chill a few days ago. Three, four, Five? Not sure how many. I haven’t slept since.
I had a job. But I lost it. I’ve been losing a number of things as of late — sleep being the foremost on my mind. How did I get here? All I know for sure is that it all starts with Kelly Burbank.
Ms. Burbank is the kind of girl who makes you ashamed to be the man you are. I would talk to her sometimes. She’d be the only other person in the building most nights. Usually she’d say nothing, just hand me the wastebasket from under her desk.
Once, I said something like, “Burning the midnight oil, huh?” And she smiled. I couldn’t tell if it was a polite or an embarrassed smile. Was she embarrassed by my presumption or the clumsy cliche? I thought about that a lot.
Another time I asked her about her books. She said she was studying journalism. I told her about this program on public radio. She knew the one I was talking about, said she applied for an internship there, but didn’t get it. Instead, she works here at the publishing house, goes to class during the day, and they let her stay late to finish her work. Mostly editing. She told me all this, looking over her shoulder without turning her body toward me.
After our first real conversation, I started working out. Push-ups in my living room. Pull-ups in my bathroom door jam.
I asked her, one night, if she ever sleeps.
“Nope,” she said. “Don’t have time.”
I knew that meant she didn’t want to talk either, so I left her alone. I didn’t bother her for the rest of the week. On the following Monday, she came into the break room for coffee while I was cleaning the fridge. She leaned against the kitchen counter with her mug in both hands and said: “So what’s your story?”
“No story,” I said.
“Someone once told me: ‘people with shitty jobs are making the most interesting art.’”
“This job isn’t that bad.”
I met Mr. Chill a couple days later. I went to the diner down the street from the building I clean. I do that sometimes after work — sit, drink coffee, watch the world wake up around me. Chill came in like a regular and sat down across from me. I’d never seen him before in my life.
Cool Mr. Chill. He’s easy. Easy to talk to. Easy to listen to. Make eye contact with. Trust.
I told him my story. The real reason I’m where I’m at — the truth I’d never tell pretty Ms. Kelly Burbank. I didn’t do a good job telling it; but Chill put all the pieces together, gave it pith.
“So you needed more time. Weren’t ready to start a family and she was.”
“Something like that.”
“When did this happen?”
“We signed the papers almost six months ago.”
“Time goes by so fast.”
“Think of how much of it we waste. If you could do more in a day, wouldn’t that solve everything? If you had more time, you could have a family and everything else you want out of life. You wouldn’t have to choose.”
“Yeah. But where do I get more time?”
I laughed. But he was serious.
What happened next is a blurry jumble. I went somewhere with him, but the rest of my memories of that night are swirling light trails burnt into my retina. I can hear Chill’s easy voice saying, “Just relax, this will only take a moment.”
Then I was at home.
I laid awake in the half light of my apartment. I couldn’t think of anything else to do, so I just laid there. I got up when I normally would, did some push-ups, ate some breakfast, went to work.
He didn’t tell me I would feel so tired.
“Long night?” Kelly asked, handing her wastebasket over.
“Yeah. I guess so.”
“You need to wake up.”
“You’re telling me.”
I went to the diner after work. Chill didn’t show; he had said he might.
At home I tried to do more push-ups, but my muscles were sore. I sat on the couch and watched TV. Kept getting this feeling like an hour or two had passed in the space of a single commercial. I’d blink and it would be the same cat scratching at the litter box, animated odor waves rising from the sand. That’s all it was, a Blink. But, God, it seemed so long.
Outside, traffic waxed and waned. People went to their jobs. Children went to school. They all came home again.
God I was tired.
At work, hours passed in geological time. During a single foot fall, I dreamed I was an astronaut trapped in a space capsule with no windows or doors. I floated weightless for hours until the impact of my foot against the linoleum roused me. The void still hummed outside the capsule until I turned the vacuum off.
I took my lunch break early, went to the diner and sat in a booth.
Eventually, Chill arrived and sat down across from me. “You don’t look good.”
“That’s what happens when you don’t sleep.”
“Why did you do this?”
“You know why. To help you. To give you more time to get your life on track.”
“I can’t — ”
“Yes. There are side effects. But I can help you with those. We can help each other.”
I blinked and for the first time saw him as he truly was. Radiant, beautiful, an angel of light.
“Do you know what I do?” he said, and his brilliant aura disappeared. “We talked about you last time, I never got a chance to tell you about me. It’s Okay. But now it’s my turn to talk. About me.”
I rubbed grains of sand into my eyes and tried to open them wider. He went on talking.
“What I do is help people. Not just people like you who need a little bit of a push to get their lives on track. I also help other people. Wealthy people. Sometimes they have complicated problems. Tricky, delicate situations. Sometimes, simple problems. They want something. For example, there’s this box, discovered in a shipwreck at the bottom of the Adriatic. It dates back to the Byzantine empire, the only one of it’s kind left in the world. And it can calculate the position of the stars with unimaginable precision. Have you heard of this?”
I nod. “Discovery Channel, I think.”
“My mind reels at the implications of such an invention. I think about it all the time. Can you imagine? A man, just a simple man, without the aid of computers — not even a calculator — built this device. And it still functions today. I think, ‘What have I done that compares?’ It makes me want to use every second I have to the very best of my ability. Because a second is infinite, really. Infinite potential. But then — and this is what really bends my noodle — when you think about the very cosmos the box represents, you realize what a lark the last thousand or so years are since that box was built. No one remembers the man who built it. He’s dead anyway, and the box is just a toy to be sold on the black market. Do you get what I’m saying?”
I was starting to.
“Right now,” he went on, “this priceless piece of antiquity is on public display at the Museum of Science and Industry. My client wants it on the private market. See? Simple problem.”
Then Mr. Chill leaned across the table. “But how are we going to get it for him?”
I took it for a rhetorical question, but Chill just stayed there, inclining toward me as if he expected an answer.
Finally, I said, “I don’t know.”
Chill pulled back, threw his arms over the back of the booth.
“Well you should think about it. Because how you answer that question will determine whether I will continue to help you.”
“I don’t want your help anymore, I just want to get some sleep.”
Mr. Chill sighed. “No, you do not need to sleep. You need to wake up.”
“No. No. I need to sleep.”
“Technically, you can still sleep. For very, very short periods. Seconds at most. Not enough to keep you sane. Do you know what will happen to you?”
I didn’t nod. I didn’t blink. I said nothing. Just looked across the table at him.
“You will, very quickly, begin to lose your mind. You will dream and not know it. Waking dreams that will come in waves. Your brain won’t be able to write new memories properly. Your metabolism will stop functioning properly. Your immune system will shut down. You will be a raving mad, human husk in a week, tops, living out a torturous hell as you die.”
To that, I said, “Go fuck yourself.”
I didn’t go back to work right away. I wandered around downtown, went to a bar, got drunk, threw up.
The night was warm. I took my shoes off and I could feel the concrete vibrating against the soles of my feet. Living energy. The essence of the city. The aggregate heartbeats of every sleeping person in every building connected by this asphalt grid. This nervous system.
I blinked and it was gone, so I went back to work.
Maybe Mr. Chill was lying. Maybe I would fall asleep eventually. When that happened, when I got back to normal, I would need my job. At least, that’s what I thought at the time. Dawn was approaching. The professionals would be returning to smudge the glass and fill their trash cans and piss on the floor in front of the urinals. I had to hurry.
That’s when I heard the voices of children playing in the empty halls, always around a corner, or behind a door. And when I’d turn my back they’d be right behind me, shrill and shrieking. I chased the voices until I found them outside the sixth floor window. I pounded on the glass, trying to find a window that would open.
Kelly found me. I didn’t know she was still there.
She smiled the kindest smile I had ever seen. Not shy. Not embarrassed. Kind. I remember crumbling in a corner of the room and asking her if she could hear the children too.
She bent down and held my chin in her hand. “I can’t believe you told him to go fuck himself,” she said.
To be continued in Part 2 of Night Life... coming 05.22.2015