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Kathryn Chetkovich

Dreaming Before Sleep

It was the middle of the night, and Harry was trying to coax himself back to sleep by calculating his net worth. He had been right to unload those oil stocks when he did, and right to move on the multimedia company, even when his female broker had tried to discourage him. It was ironic the way he could not seem to make a false move these days.

He closed his eyes and divided the blackboard of his mind into a left half for the running total and a right half for each calculation of shares times closing price. Of course it was all an approximation, and once you threw in the total guesswork on the house, you were almost picking a number out of a hat. But it was something to think about in the still center of the night, and the latest research on Alzheimer's said it was important to keep the brain active—although to Harry that seemed the idiotic equivalent of saying if you don't want to forget things, you've just got to remember them.

Next to him Marion was breathing with the enviable evenness of sleep. Harry tried to match his breathing to hers, but he kept getting distracted by the dogtrot rhythm of his own heart. His left foot was getting prickly with pins and needles. It seemed suddenly hot in the room. When he closed his eyes he could see the strong, abnormal cells driving out the tired, healthy ones in a kind of hostile takeover.

He reached for his wife's hand.

"Are you awake?" she said, surfacing.

"Yes, I've been awake. But you go back to sleep if you can."

"No, I'm awake now. What time is it? Do you want the radio on?"

It calmed Harry to listen to the news, the worse the better. Monumental natural disasters were especially steadying—the hysterical reports of devastation, the drone of helicopters in the background, the slow creep of order as the men and agencies began to arrive. Marion liked the talk shows, but that had always been a difference between them: Harry liked facts and she liked opinions. You could tell her something experts had finally proven after long years of study and her response would be, "Imagine devoting your life to that!"

Harry had always been enamored of facts, especially numbers, and had only grown more so in their nearly fifty years of marriage. The disturbing thing was how, as you got older, there was less and less real information to pull around you. It was alarming the first time you heard a doctor use the word mystery.

"Harry?" Marion's voice sent up a little flare of panic in the dark. She shook his arm.

"I'm still here," he said.

"I know that," she said with relief.

"I was having this dream," he said. Harry was not by nature a deceptive or even particularly inventive person, but he had gotten in the habit lately of making things up in the middle of the night. "I was giving a speech to a hall full of people, and when I opened my mouth, music came out."

"What kind of music?"

He could feel his wife sharpening into consciousness, her body growing more alert next to his. She had taken a couple of dream-interpretation courses at the community college.

"Something classical. Violins." Harry's own preferences ran to Christmas music and Artie Shaw.

"How wonderful. I'd love to have a dream like that."

"Well," he said, feeling sheepish, "it was kind of disconcerting, actually. I kept trying to say something and the words kept turning into music instead."

"Even better." When Marion got to looking on the bright side there was no stopping her. "Like the angels singing."

"Hardly." Really, she could be maddening. But he liked hearing her release the word angels into the dark, her flat-footed Midwestern voice calling them down to earth.

It had always been this way with his wife: the things he loved about her and the things he could not stand were the same. He had always assumed that he was smarter than she was, but her flirtatiously uncommitted relationship with facts left her free to think of things he could not begin to imagine. "I don't learn things very well," he had once heard her tell someone, "I just know them."

"I don't mean literally," she said now. She gave a little sigh, as though mere words could not begin to capture what she meant. Harry found himself feeling annoyed and comforted. "What else do you remember?" she asked him.

There was that, at least—it was his dream. He tried to think of something. "Well, in the middle of it all, this woman stood up and said that was it, she was leaving, someone had to call her a cab."

"Did she remind you of anyone?"

Harry thought suddenly, inexplicably, of a woman he had had an affair with twenty—no, probably closer to thirty years before. She wore sundresses, and freckles were sprinkled across her collarbone. Melanoma, he thought now. "She had red hair."

"Like your mother's?"

Harry was caught off guard by this association, which he had never made before. "Not exactly."

"Close enough. What else?"

He had never told Marion about the woman, whose name he now couldn't remember. For years he had been afraid her name would somehow jump across his lips and betray him, and now it was lost to him.

"She had a dog with her. No"—he corrected himself, covering his tracks—"more like a big cat." She, whoever she was, had had a big white Alaskan dog, and she doted on it in a way that made Harry uneasy. She would walk into the kitchen to make them a drink, and the dog would push up off his elbows and follow her, his nails clicking on the linoleum. Harry had never before this moment realized what an unhappy woman she must have been.

"That sounds like it might be sexual."

Harry could feel his face go suddenly flushed in the dark. Marion was always doing this—walking into his head and having a look around. "Of course not," he said.

The pain suddenly grabbed his side and bit in. He took a short tuck of breath.

"What is it?" Marion said.

"Nothing." He turned on the lamp to find his pills.

In the morning, Marion got up to make coffee, and Harry lay in bed. It took him a moment to remember what day it was. Every day felt like Sunday now, melancholy with rest and unimportance. But today was Wednesday, and that meant Marion would be leaving early for her healing group, where a dozen of them—including men, Harry had learned—put their hands on people who were sick and prayed for them to get better. Harry tried not to think about it. When he felt strong the idea of it embarrassed him, and when he was weak it made him nervous. Harry himself did not believe, and the earnest mention of God always struck him like the unconscious brandishing of a bad habit left over from childhood.

When he got to the kitchen, Marion had already finished her own breakfast and put her placemat away. She set his coffee and a bowl in front of him.


"You could make yourself an egg if you want. But I don't have time to make you one right now."

Harry had not made himself an egg in fifty years, which Marion very well knew. "Never mind." He reached for the newspaper.

"Well, I've got to be on my way." He noticed she was already holding her purse. "Will you be okay?"

"I think at ten I might have a heart attack. When did you say you'd be getting home?"

"It depends how many people come." Harry had an image of a bank-style line, a long snake of the halt and the lame between velvet ropes. "Before lunch at the latest. Or maybe one, at the very latest. Sometimes Jane gets to talking."

"Just tell her you have an ailing husband at home." He spoke to the paper.

"Jane wrote the book on ailing husbands. She's had two."

It was strange how the men died and the women just went on, playing bridge, making meals for the homeless, talking on the phone. Harry did not look up from his paper when Marion kissed him good-bye on the cheek. She smelled, he noticed, of perfume.

"Don't forget to put in a few good words for me," he said, still not looking at her.

"I will," she said, and he was surprised, alarmed, by her seriousness. "I always do."

Marion had been gone a couple of hours when the doorbell rang. Harry was back in his study, sorting through a pile of mail with the congressional noises of C-SPAN rising and falling companionably in the background. The sound of the doorbell startled him. Who could it be on a Wednesday? Probably some friend of hers, dropping something off, and he would have to stand there at the door with her or, worse, ask her in. Why were women forever borrowing and returning things? What was the point of being reasonably well-off if you couldn't just buy what you needed and leave everyone else alone?

Harry moved slowly through the house, and the doorbell rang twice more. "All right," he said aloud. "I'm coming."

When he finally got to the door and opened it, he saw his two-year-old grandson standing there, both hands raised over his head to reach the bell, tilted against it with all his weight. "Hey!" Harry said, more sharply than he intended. "You can stop that now. I'm here."

The boy turned uncertainly to his mother, who was standing next to him. Harry could see the surface of his face begin to buckle.

"It's okay, sweetie," Cindy said, reaching down to lift him up. "It's just Grandpa. Hi, Dad."

"Your mother's at church," Harry said.

"I know, but we were out this way and we thought we'd stop by."

"Well, that's very thoughtful." For a moment Harry just stood there, with his hand still on the doorknob, but then Matthew pushed past his legs, planting a hand on Harry's thigh as he went by.

"Come in, come in," Harry said, backing away from the doorway. He thought fleetingly, longingly, of his darkened study and the mail he had not yet looked at—the solicitations and catalogs, the newsletters from organizations he didn't remember joining. He looked at his watch and wondered how long his daughter intended to stay.

"How about if I fix us a glass of iced tea?" Cindy said, with a brightness that made Harry tired. "And Mattie, how would you like some juice? Come on, sweetie, this way." She started walking toward the kitchen.

"Well, that would be fine," Harry said. He was still standing near the door. "What time is it, anyway?" He looked at his watch again. It seemed early for iced tea.

When he got to the kitchen Cindy was going through the refrigerator and Matthew was walking slowly along the edge of the room, his hand trailing along the surface of the cupboards. He was humming to himself. When he caught sight of Harry he broke into a grin and ran over and thrust his head between Harry's knees, almost knocking him down.

"Careful, sweetie," Cindy said, without pulling her head from the refrigerator.

Matthew took a fistful of Harry's pants in each hand and swayed back and forth. Harry put his hand on the boy's head. He felt a love for this boy unlike any he remembered feeling for his own daughters. Marion was always reminiscing about one thing or another that had happened when the girls were small. The only part of these stories Harry really remembered was Marion telling them before.

Cindy handed Matthew a plastic cup of juice and then stood looking around the room with her hands on her hips. It was a stance Harry recognized as Marion's. "Where do you suppose Mom would keep a tray?" she asked, more to herself than to him.

Harry did not like the insinuation that he didn't know where things were kept in his own kitchen, so he walked purposefully toward what he hoped was a likely cabinet above the stove. Inside was an imposing and precarious-looking stack of trays and plates. The discovery pleased him inordinately.

"Here, I'll get that," Cindy said when she saw him reaching up.

"No, I've got it." But Harry hadn't realized how heavy the pile on top of the one he wanted was. His arm began to tremble and he dropped the stack of them back on the shelf with a clatter. He closed the cabinet door without inspecting the damage. "There," he said, handing the tray to his daughter.

When the tea was made they went outside, and Harry and Cindy sat in woven plastic chairs while Matthew pushed a small wheelbarrow around Harry's yard. Harry had gone overboard with the planting this year, and one end of the yard was a chaos of color. On the other side of the house were rows of potted tomato and pepper plants lining the border of the swimming pool.

Harry watched his grandson. He was collecting sticks and rocks, but only certain ones. He held each one up and examined it, then either threw it to the ground or placed it gently in the plastic wheelbarrow.

He was a handsome little boy who looked like his father, a man who was no longer, as Cindy put it, "part of my life."

Cindy was Harry and Marion's middle daughter, the hard one. The oldest had raised herself—good grades, good job, good husband—and the youngest had never really grown up, but she was still a sweet pleasure to be around, and now she had a husband to look after her, so she was no longer Harry's worry. But Cindy seemed unwilling either to work hard for what she wanted or to be happy with what she had. It had always seemed to Harry that she was looking for someone to blame and that, although she never openly accused him, the person she most often settled on was him.

Harry thought of himself as a pessimistic person, but he did not take disappointment and bad news personally, the way his daughter always had. It was exhausting and, considering how hard he and Marion had worked to give them all a good life, irritating. "Lots of girls manage with a lot less," he said to her once. "Your mother was no raving beauty, and look how well she's done. Everyone loves her."

"It doesn't make me feel better to hear you running Mom down."

"I am not criticizing your mother and you know it."


There had been times when Cindy was a teenager when Harry would feel an unfamiliar gust of fury blow through him. He had never hit her—even when the girls were little, that sort of discipline was rare and in any case had been Marion's job—but once he grabbed her by the fleshy part of her arm and held her so tight that when he released her he could see the white stripes of his fingers against the red of her skin. They were arguing about something and she was about to walk away. Her head was already turned from him and her hair was swinging from side to side when he put out his arm—to stop her, he had thought, to hold her still so he could finish what he was saying. But she had tried to pull away and he had tightened his grip. He had pulled her around and grabbed hold of her other arm and shaken her.

Cindy leaned back in her chair now and closed her eyes. "That sun's incredible, isn't it," she said.

"Yes." For a moment Harry thought he heard Marion's car in the driveway. "Your mother will be sorry she missed you."

"You want us to go?"

"Of course not. I just know your mother always likes to see you." Harry looked over at his grandson, who was crouched on the ground, studying something. His hands were in fists at his sides. "Matthew," Harry called out. "Why don't you show your grandpa what you've got in that wheelbarrow?"

"Okay," Matthew said, without looking up.

"Mattie, come on over here," Cindy said.

"Oh, let him be." Everything suddenly seemed to Harry like too much trouble. It was all exhausting.

"I'll get it," Cindy said. She got up from her chair and started toward the house.


"The phone."

Harry listened, but he couldn't hear either the ringing or Cindy's voice after she went inside. He hoped it was not for him, but that was ridiculous—it was never for him. Suddenly he thought of a conversation he had overheard once between Marion and Cindy. He had picked up the phone and discovered that the two of them were already on it, and before he could interrupt to say hello, he heard his daughter say, "If that's the way you feel, I don't see why you don't just leave him." Later Harry had wondered what Marion's response had been, but in that moment he had pressed his finger carefully down on the hook and quietly replaced the phone in its cradle. That night he and Marion had gone out to dinner. At one point she went to the ladies'room and seemed to be gone a long time; but she said nothing that night, and nothing in the days after that. The strangest part to Harry was that if he had not picked up the phone, he never would have guessed that such a conversation had ever taken place.

Harry took another sip of his iced tea and set the glass heavily back on the table. It was not sweet enough. Nothing was ever sweet or salty enough since the chemo. He could ask Cindy to bring him some sugar when she came back, but he would probably have forgotten about it by then.

Those were the two things that angered him most—not being able to remember anything and being tired all the time. What was that joke Marion had told him recently, something about remembering the eggs and forgetting the bacon? What time had she said she'd be back? There was no point trying to remember, he'd learned that much. Whatever you'd forgotten was like a cat; you just had to wait for it to come back to you, usually when you were thinking of something else.

He heard Cindy push the screen door open behind him. "That was—" she started to say, and then, "Matthew! Dad! Where's Matthew?"

"What?" Harry said.

"Matthew!" She went running around the side of the house, toward the pool. "Oh God, please, God," Harry heard her say.

Harry was a few steps behind her and heard her cry out "Matthew" before he saw them both, and saw that the boy was okay, the boy was alive. He had climbed down backwards onto the steps at the shallow end and was standing in water up to his thighs, but he had his hands planted firmly on the concrete edge of the pool.

Cindy ran to him and lifted him out of the water. He had been fine until then, but once he saw his mother he began to cry. She held him to her and rocked him back and forth, her nose pressed into the base of his neck.

Harry stood a few feet away from them and did not know what to do. Finally he stepped forward and put his hand on his daughter's back. He patted her a few times but she seemed not to notice.

Just then Marion appeared at the side of the house. "Well, here everyone is," she sang out. She looked especially competent as she approached, the sun shining off her gray hair, the way she walked swiftly and surely over to them in her tennis shoes.

"We had a little excitement, but everything seems to be fine now," Harry said. His legs suddenly felt unsteady.

Cindy turned to her mother. She was crying now. "Oh, Mom," she said. "Did we ever almost die?"

"Daily," her mother said. She gave Matthew a loud kiss on his cheek. "But since we're all still alive, how about a grilled cheese sandwich? Come on, little man, I could use your help in the kitchen."

Cindy put her son on the ground and Marion took the boy's hand and the two of them made their small-stepped way to the kitchen. Harry felt his daughter there, waiting for him to say something. The pool looked unbelievably blue, more like an advertisement for a thing than the thing itself. "You know what's funny," he found himself saying, "is I never even learned how to swim. I never in a million years dreamed I'd own a house with a pool."

He did not know how to make it happen, but he wanted his daughter to ask him things so he could tell her things. She stood next to him with her arms crossed. "God, I'm still shaking," she said.

That night Harry and Marion went to the Italian place in their neighborhood for dinner. They each had a vodka tonic and salads with their entrees, but they were there in time for the Early Bird Special so the bill, including a generous tip for their regular waitress, was less than twenty-five dollars. Harry put it on his card.

They drove home the back way, and Harry pointed out a house, only slightly larger than theirs and on a smaller lot, that had just sold for well over a million.

"Imagine!" Marion said, but she did not really even look at it as they drove by. She had been in the middle of a story about one of her friends, and he had interrupted her.

It was still light when they pulled in their driveway. Marion pointed the remote control at the garage door, and it began its gentle lift. Watching it roll up slowly and noisily, Harry sometimes thought of the time their power had gone out and how, even together, they had not been able to lift the door on their own.

They watched an old Columbo and got ready for bed. Marion looked older at night, without her glasses or her public face on, the expression that reminded Harry of a hospital volunteer passing out magazines. Her eyes seemed to sit deeper in her face, and her skin was shiny with cold cream. She climbed into bed beside him and kissed him on the lips. "Sweet dreams," she said, then turned amiably away from him. He knew she would be asleep in minutes.



"Did you ever think of leaving me?"

"Daily," she said. She did not turn over.

"Seriously," he said, and the seriousness of his voice made her turn to face him. He noticed that a little clip was holding a lock of hair in a curl at her temple. "I heard Cindy ask you once why you didn't just leave me. I've always wondered what you said."

"Cindy? When, today?"

"No, this was years ago."

"Years ago? How on earth would I remember that?"

"It doesn't seem like the sort of conversation you have and then just forget." Harry could hear his voice climbing in the dark.

"Sweetie, I honestly don't remember. It probably wasn't even anything. We were probably just talking." She yawned. "I'm sure you talked about leaving me from time to time."

"Never. I never did."

"Well, that's because you don't talk to people. I'm sure you thought about it."

"I do talk to people."

"Well, the main thing is I never did it, did I? I'm still here, aren't I?"

Harry did not feel at all sure that that was the main thing, but he felt unable to put his finger on what the main thing was.

"I think that's sweet that you would worry about it, though," Marion said. She was still turned toward him, but her eyes were closed.

In another few minutes she was asleep. Harry lay there with his bedside lamp on, but he did not pick up his book, a murder mystery. Across the room was Marion's dressing table, on top of which stood a crowd of fancy perfume bottles and a picture of him in his army uniform. They had not met until after the war, and it struck him now as odd to think that the photograph she had kept on her dresser all these years was one that had been taken before she even knew him.

Thinking of the war made him think of that eight-hundred-page biography of Truman he had been meaning to read, and that made him think of his father, who had always admired Truman, even before Truman became fashionable again. Harry thought of his father's grave, in a little town up north, which Harry had not visited in years. He thought of the bootlegger who had lived at the end of the road, and of the lady across the street who used to beat her son with her shoe, and of his best friend, Jimmy, who hitchhiked to Georgia one summer.

Georgia. That was the redhead's name. They had met on the train, Harry remembered now. Kennedy had been shot only a few days before, and the woman was crying. Even now Harry could feel the scratchy-one-way, soft-the-other nap of the train-seat upholstery.

He could see everything in such detail, it was more like television than memory. The way the street light shone into the bedroom of their first house. The foldout bed they slept on the year they took the girls to the cabin by the lake. The trout Cindy had caught, then refused to eat. The first time he saw Matthew, asleep in his mother's arms in the hospital.

Harry lay in the dark and watched things he never expected to remember and things he had not thought he had seen the first time around. His mind hopped along its associative path, from the view out his college boardinghouse window to the day their oldest, Judith, left for school, to his own high school graduation, to a dinner party he and Marion had gone to down the street forty years ago, and the way Ed Lotelli had looked at her when they walked in. Then, without meaning to, Harry thought of his recent visit to the doctor, the way the young man had leaned against the front of his desk, his legs crossed at the ankles and his hands holding the edge of the desktop.

Harry lay there in the dark for a moment, not seeing anything. His heart was beating with an off-kilter rhythm, a crazy pirate with a wooden leg. Marion was asleep beside him, and he didn't want to wake her.

He began at the top, with a little company named Aardvark that had jumped forty-three percent in the last two quarters. The big board was scrolling through his mind now, and he could clearly make out each quote, even the fractions, as it sailed by. In the darkness his mind calculated with unearthly speed and precision. It had been a profitable day. He was leaving a lot behind.

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