At All Hours
By John Bridges
I have given up my battle with the night. It is a battle I lost long ago anyway. I could not have been more than 8 or 9 years old, but I can remember lying awake in the dreary, uneventful darkness of an Alabama midnight. I can remember the sound of a window fan making a flat, slapping sound against the blackness. I can remember the sound of my father snoring in the bedroom next door. I can remember the sound of a mattress creaking as my mother shifted her heat-weary weight. I can even remember the sound of my brother, not moving at all in the twin bed on the other side of the room.
It was not because it was summer that I lay there unsleeping. It was not because of the slapping sound of the fan or the distant hooting coo of an owl or the bellowing bray of a horny penned-up coon dog or the low, gulping croak of a tree frog. It was not because of the syrupy goo of the air or because of my damp, twisted bedsheets or because of the moist, curdled smell of my pillow.
It was not because I had any particular terror of ogres that lurked in the closet. I did not fear the mound of playclothes piled up on my desk chair. I did not fear the lights that skittered around the room as an automobile murmured past on the highway. I only feared that I might have to get up and go to the bathroom. I only feared that, when I opened the bathroom door, my mother would call out, "What are you doing? Don't you know it's past 12 o'clock?"
For such a question, at age 8 or 9, I could think of no possible answer. It was just past midnight, an hour I had already come to cherish. There was no point in assuming that I would be allowed to turn the television on and watch a Bette Davis movie. There was no reason to think that I would be allowed to turn a lamp on and read about Alice falling headlong down a rabbit hole. There was no reason to think that I would be allowed to call anybody up on the telephone. At such an hour, I would be the only waking person I knew in the entire county.
It would be a moment of great loneliness, but also a moment of indescribable bravery, as if I had discovered that I was the only survivor left to survey a corpse-scattered, battle-scarred landscape. In such a moment I would know exactly what it must feel like to be one last soldier, left with no one to fight, much less anyone with whom to share a triumph. It was a moment that could only be marked by taking a pee.
To this day I have friends who, I am sure, have very seldom seen midnight, much less the hours beyond it. They are the sort of people who ask me, "What would you do if you had children?" To which I respond, "I suppose I would have to get rid of them, like a bag full of kittens." That way, people do not ask me, "What would you do if you had pets?"
I do not have pets; neither do I have children. I cannot imagine what my life would be like if I did. I figure, if I had a dog, and if he wanted to be walked at 1 o'clock in the morning, he could learn to wait until after Maria Callas had once again finished the Mad Scene from Lucia. I figure, if a child woke up at 2 a.m., terrified by a nightmare, he could learn to take comfort in a rerun of Dark Victory. I would make him a mug of hot cocoa, and together we would watch CNN.
I admit that, at 4 o'clock in the morning, I envy sleeping people. I have seen them in the darkness, lying on their backs, dead to the world, their mouths gaping open and a little stream of drool running down over their chins. I have tried to roll over carefully, so as not to awaken them. I have tried not to hog all the covers. I have listened to them snoring in the darkness, and I have longed for a flashlight and a copy of Time magazine.
At such moments, I resent the fact that, at 7 a.m., these people will awake and I will have to pretend that I, like them, have been sleeping too. I resent the fact that I will have to pretend that I am ready for flavored coffee and a bowl of granola. I resent the fact that, even though there are two people in this bed at this particular moment, only one of them has a case of morning mouth. I resent the fact that the one with the case of morning mouth is not the one who has brought a toothbrush.
I believe these people when they claim that, once they have finished watching Letterman, they close their eyes, pull up their jammies, and drift away to bide-a-wee. I believe them when they say they sleep a sleep that is dreamless and perfect. I believe them when they say they have not read a book since 1977.
It is in the night, though, that I long for Dostoyevsky and Dickens and the Sisters Bront'. It is just after midnight that I long for Ella and Sinatra and Lotte Lenya growing sad at the thought of September. It is at 1 in the morning that I feel the need to see Fred and Ginger dancing across a platinum-parqueted night club in Swing Time. It is at 2 o'clock that I begin to feel the need to hear a tenor sing an Irish song.
These are not the sort of longings I have in the daytime. They are not the sort of moments that could ever be shared with people who get up in time to watch Regis Philbin. They are the sort of moments I longed for, years ago, in the darkness of an Alabama summer, while all the rest of the world was sleeping, keeping to itself, and snoring toward the dawn.
Even then, the rest of the world awoke, ready to face the sunrise, ready to make its first trip to the bathroom. Even then, I was the one who was drowsy, whose hair was matted, whose eyes were red with unsleeping. Even then, however, while the rest of the world's commodes were flushing, I was the one with stories to tell.
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