New Fiction: ‘Sleep Nights’

A short story of love and addiction by Alta Journal managing editor Blaise Zerega.

sleep nights
Victor Juhasz

In that time, the bed’s shaking woke Henry. It started when Clara moved in. She insisted he move his mattress from the floor onto a box spring and frame.

Sometimes the bed shook when a truck rumbled by. Once during a strong tremor. Or when he or Clara tossed and turned. And especially when he was trembling. Then, Henry would place his palm against the wall to steady things.

Clara slept soundly, her breathing regular, her body warm. The shaking never woke her. Nor would the catfight between two whores below them on Turk Street. Henry lay awake and listened to their high-pitched high-strung shrieks. It was a crazy thing to see them fight. The other night, Henry had watched one of them swing her hand right up there and start squeezing and yanking

*

the cord for like the 50th time, hard. The bus driver at last stopped next to a rice field. Clara clutched her swollen belly and stumbled off the bus into a windbreak of eucalyptus trees. The world stopped shaking as she kicked off her sandals and unzipped her soggy pants, wanting someone to take her

*

hand from the wall. The fight on the street continued but the bed no longer quivered. Henry rubbed his fingertips and felt the chalky residue of cheap paint. Next to him, Clara slept on her side, knees bent, facing away from him. His fingers searched the backs of her legs until they found the crease between her thighs and calves. There, it was tight and warm.

This story appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Alta Journal.
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A hollow explosion of breaking glass caused Clara to stir. It was the pop of an empty 40-ouncer, thrown by one of the fighting hookers. The tattoo of one prostitute chasing another, both in high heels and with stunted strides, came next and then faded. Turk Street returned to quiet, peace. Henry’s hand remained wedged behind Clara’s knee. The bed began to vibrate while his mind shuddered

*

weeks back, no months, no just two weeks ago, back in shaky Queens, Henry’s guy had been the one everyone called DealerLouReed. They were in an alley off Steinway.

“You need a needle?” DealerLou asked, reaching into a pocket of his Army field coat. The hollow, stainless steel tips looked recently used.

“You got any still in their plastic?”

DealerLou shook his head. “I bleached them myself.”

Henry thought of never being sure where pennies and library books had been. “You got any bleach?”

“Fuck you, junkie.”

“Thanks anyway,” Henry said and offered DealerLou a sweet smile.

“Get lost.”

“Fuck you, fuck me,” Henry muttered to himself, turning his back and then counting his steps as if in a duel. On 20 he looked back to see DealerLou turn left. Henry walked west toward the East River, gaining confidence.

He felt good. He was going to take this as a sign not to use. Everything was going to work out. He would call his folks and go home. He would start eating right. Sleep nights. Maybe exercise. Lift weights, take up jogging, play hoops again. Anything was possible in the Big Apple. He could kick it cold

*

as hell in the damp night blowing wind beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Henry hopped two cyclone fences into a maintenance yard and walked to the edge of San Francisco. He scaled another fence and leaped from the quicksand land of earthquakes to a workers’ platform hanging from the belly of the bridge, hundreds of feet above the cold and fast water.

Out in the bay, Angel Island floated without wings, a ghost ship anchored in purgatory. Nearby, Alcatraz hummed with a weird, futuristic glow. Treasure Island harbored pirates, and a bridge—crowded with headlights, brilliant belly buttons on the island’s umbilical cord—lurched forward with each beat of Henry’s aching heart.

He climbed from the platform up to a beam and crawled onto the suicide net. The dark waves below didn’t bother him. He’d never been afraid of heights and he could swim. About the only thing he feared was sharing the net with a crazy jumper, some fuckup who couldn’t even kill themselves properly.

Henry stayed in the shadow of the roadway overhead and scooted onto an orange steel strut to escape the wind. Automobiles whizzed by above him and the steel’s rust-flecked surface gripped his windbreaker with tiny ripping noises that made his spine shiver. His perch was quiet and peaceful, safe, and he watched a crescent moon appear low in the sky across the bay.

He squeezed the baggie of heroin between his thumb and fingers, more like laundry detergent than baby powder. They gave out needles by the SFPL and he wished he had asked for one, but he couldn’t handle another lecture about green apples and fake oxy, although if they had offered a library card instead, he’d have accepted a syringe. DealerLou’s needles had been dirty pipes crawling with chlorine, cholera, colic babies crying. It wouldn’t be good for a small-time user like himself to get HIV or hepapotamis. Yeah, if only a needle, but in the breast pocket of his windbreaker were straws, napkins, coffee stirrers, salt, pepper, mustard, ketchup—all from McDonald’s. With a red pocketknife from Italy that had belonged to his grandfather, Henry cut a three-inch section from one of the straws.

He took a long snort. While his nasal passages burned and his eyes watered, he lowered his other nostril and took another. The lights of Ess Eff turned brighter and lit up the unforgiving heavens while

sleep nights
Victor Juhasz

*

Roosevelt Island swam laps around Manhattan, up the East River, across the Harlem, down the Hudson into the harbor and around the Statue of Liberty Tree, tall and wide with lanterns hanging in its branches, then back up the mighty East again, dragging the tramway like a horrific sea anchor, but still no courage to brave the currents of Hell’s Gate and make it to the pitiful Bronx River or even the piddly Hutchinson or some sorry, leftover rotting canal full of bilgewater that might lead home with one mighty wave of syringes that wash up on the beach and even one of them would do now because it would be straight from the blue blue ocean with the famous salty salt water that heals everything and Henry was happy knowing that everything would be cured soon.

Subway trains with giant pizza-cutter-wheels rolled by reminding him not to stretch his legs or he would end up like the Wicked Witch with her candy-striped stockings sticking out from underneath Dorothy’s house, where they curled up and disappeared just disappeared, bestowing peace on Henry Oz who glazed

*

and dozed until after midnight when he watched a squad of six people slither through a gap by the roadway onto a large scaffold clinging to the bridge’s underside with cables and pulleys. They wore black and carried ropes over their shoulders like machine gun cartridges, Viva Zapata, or were they Al Qaeda soldiers preparing to dynamite the Golden Gate Bridge? And no, not on his watch, Henry promised God as he slid down from his perch and crawled out onto the steel net with the duty honor country fever that had led him to enlist about a year ago. And despite the imminent peril to the home of the free, Henry smiled from the happy nod and his cheek muscles strained against his heavy lips in feverish fervor while he lay on his side and peered through the netting to witness the urban mod squad performing tasks with silent precision.

Henry winced as the first sacrifice attached himself by the ankles to a thick hose and without ceremony fell like Lucifer into the black night, a blind parachutist who disappeared into the ocean water below, but then flew back up with the laziness of a yo-yo, Around the World and Shoot the Thrill were the tricks Henry remembered, up and down, again and again, the horrible up and terrible down leaving the sacrificed soldier dangling but it was only for a split second before his comrades heaved to and hand over hand pulled the line of life to them, rescuing their prize. One after another, the night’s ninjas each took a turn tempting damnation until their leader thwumped the last warrior on the back with hearty congratulations shaking this hellish Golden Hell’s Gate and all that was mad, bad, and sad in this life, leaving Henry’s ribs bruised and him longing to fly with them

*

away from Minerville was what Clara had wanted. No life to live inside a trailer, double-wide if she was lucky, some no-good husband showing up once a month to collect the welfare check, probably he’d be drunk. He’d show up, it’d be raining and nasty, he’d bang on the door all the while hollering until she let him in, and then. What then? Sex and drugs and booze. Children. More sex. More children. All kinds of children being born; half the girls in her class already had one. No way was she falling for that. There was a clinic in San Francisco where the Underground Railroad had stopped. Move to the city, get it done, and land a job maybe typing or shuffling

*

across the bridge and staggered into a subway tunnel on the island of Manhattan. It was a cold Wednesday morning. One more day to go, Henry told himself. Then, home to Arthur Avenue.

Pigeons clucked and beat their wings, some fluttering into the bore, some flapping their way out. The hollow claws of rats scratched the cement. The dark passage was cold and straight and long. Deeper in, it warmed and smelled of rotting garbage and bitter urine. Henry paused to piss, which quieted everything.

He followed the green relay lights telling the conductors all clear and to please watch for the young man in the red, always red nylon windbreaker like Jimmy Dean sausage in Rebel Without a Cause, even though it was before his time. Henry shook until he saw the circle of fluorescent light marketing the first stop into Manhattan. He clutched his thirst and the buck-thirty in his pocket.

“Welcome to New York!” he greeted rush hour commuters stepping off the N onto the 59th Street platform. Some dropped change into his found coffee cup. He had better luck with passengers waiting to board their trains. By nine o’clock he had more than $5, mostly quarters. He shuffled through subterranean corridors, lifting and planting his heavy feet on sticky floors blackened by bubble gum to the Lexington Avenue line. He boarded a 6 train, rode that to Lafayette Street, where he exited and walked to St. Anthony’s Mission.

He had a coffee and let Father Dom persuade him to please sit through an AA meeting before receiving a meal; which he did, the whole time thinking how vodka would go well with the not-just-for-breakfast-anymore orange juice. And yes, with a half-pint that he would buy just as soon as he got the hell out of there, he wouldn’t fall asleep and he’d still have some quarters left. That decided, he ate the egg scramble and chewed cold toast as Father Dom sat down across from him again, and Henry heard him say that he remembered his one-man retrospective at the Googooheim, which looked like a stack of white plates

*

shivering and noticing the tracks left by snails on the warm pavement as they inched along. Clara could bend over and, at the right angle, in the right sunlight, see their glistening trails right up until the moment when they had been run over or crushed by a heel, their shells crunching like walnuts. All that suffering and hurt; their pink abdomens bled as they crawled across the sandpapery ground-up-glass cement, which sparkled naturally, but even more so when wet with blood and birthing fluid. And all that morning sickness prenatal suffering for what, she wondered. Death and blood and useless wanting

*

you to join the U.S. Army. Uncle Sam pointed his finger and Henry sat down before Sergeant Cannon. You want to join the Special Forces? I want to join the Special Forces. All City wrestler. Perfect health. Yes, high school graduate. No, no college. Why not interested? Sign here. Infantry first, 11 bang-bang. Special Forces after. Made it through basic and was at Benning when the Army found out. Managed to piss hot even while locked up. A real dago dirtbag. Two field grade Article 15s plus the discharge and not even a

sleep nights
Victor Juhasz

*

veteran?” asked Father Francis at St. Anthony’s in the Tenderloin. “I can get you a room and I know an employer, a guy named Larry Jackson who runs a pool hall. He needs a dependable worker. He spent some time in Vietnam, has a preference for vets, even a young one, like you

*

who ran away from Arthur Avenue to the Army and then you end up living on the streets, you nogoodlazyfuck,” his brother Marco screamed.

It was Thursday evening. Henry zipped his red windbreaker. He picked up the plane ticket to San Francisco from the dining room table. There was also a scrap of paper with the number of a cousin in Sacramento. No one else was home.

“Mom and Pop were supposed to be here,” Henry said quietly.

Pop was the one who had answered when Henry called from one of the pay phones in Grand Central Station.

“Just for a bit,” he pleaded, in that moment just desperately wanting. “I need to rest. I need to sleep, sleep nights.”

“Are you in danger?” his father asked, a voice that knew his son was a stupid sonofabitch who would get what he deserved and hadn’t he already warned him a thousand times?

“No, I’m not in any trouble. No one’s after me or nothing.”

“Is someone after you?”

“No, Pop. No one’s after me. I need a rest is all, I’m kinda scared. I might need some help.”

“Rehab help?”

“Maybe. At least someone to talk to.”

“Hold on.”

Henry pictured his father pressing the phone against his chest and talking it over with his mother. It was a long silence. The heartbeat of his father grew louder and faster and louder and Henry began to shake, wondering if he was hearing a heart attack through this hard plastic stethoscope that ran inside pay phone lines and technology was amazing and frightening and Henry sweated as he tried to catch his breath.

“All right, son,” his father said. “Give your mom time to get things in order. Why not come Thursday evening? Can you wait that long?”

“How many days is that?”

“Two days.” The sonofabitch anger in his father’s voice returned.

“Thursday for dinner?”

“Goddammit! Yes! For dinner! Come at five o’clock. Not before. We can talk about you

*

get out of here!” said the muscled man with red hair and an earring in each ear to Henry, who was imagining himself a hot, young artist and had wandered into a Chelsea gallery opening. No one recognized him. No one offered him a glass of fancy red wine. No one believed that he was the artist whose paintings were for sale. It was a shame that the artist could not afford to buy his own work. He cried and needed to get drunk, yet tried to keep his pride intact, resisted with so much dignity that only the back seat of a goddamned squad car was good enough for what they had done to his career.

Other times, he stole into bookstores and spotted novels that he had written. They were stocked on the shelves, merchandised proudly in the H for Henry section. A floor clerk, always in a green vest, with burly, curly-haired forearms, bounced him as he reached for one of his novels, all great novels that he wrote while sitting

*

down and have some coffee,” Father Francis in San Francisco had said, patting Henry on the back. “So what can I do?”

“I need to rest. Just for a bit.”

“Are you in danger?” Father Francis held his coffee with two hands, just below his chin.

“No, I’m not in any trouble. I haven’t done anything. No one’s after me.”

“Is someone after you?”

“After me? That’s a fucking lie. Sorry, sorry, Father. I, I didn’t—”

“It’s OK.”

“Father, listen. I got nowhere. I went to my family and my fucking, sorry, Father, gave me a plane ticket here. All the way from the freaking Bronx.”

“But what do you want?” Father Francis bowed his head.

“I might need some help.”

“Rehab help?”

“Maybe. At least someone to talk to.”

“Very good.” Father Francis raised his head.

Henry sipped his coffee and the hot caffeine surged through his three-lanes-wide arteries and barreled along miles of veins and faster and louder and faster beat his heart until he panicked, wondering if he was to make a phone call and hold the receiver to his chest would his father listen, this time, to the heart attack attacking through pay phone telephone wires to the black plastic stethoscope technology was amazing and frightening fear that stopped when Father Francis touched his forearm.

“What is it, Henry?”

“I need

*

to loosen up,” Larry said to Henry. “You just might have some fun working here. But let me tell you, you got to watch and keep the bad ones out. And don’t fall for any of their flirty crap, some of them is mean. Shit, they can really mess you up.”

Henry nodded. It was his first night on the job.

“Man, I say don’t be excluding trans folks from the service. Put them in the Special Forces,” Larry laughed. “Ultimate fighting machine, right on. I woulda shared my foxhole no argument. Rock-steady and combat-ready.”

Henry nodded a second time, hoping to avoid any talk of his military record.

“Your primary responsibility is keep out the riffraff,” said Larry. “No street trash. Particularly the junkie prostitutes. Thems come in here wanting a rest, say they’ll be paying customers and what have you. Instead, they get drunk, cause a disturbance, maybe lift a wallet.”

“So what am I supposed—?”

“Keep them out is all. You won’t have no trouble. And of course, remember to be nice to our good customers. Practice hard to be all polite-like.”

“Got it.”

That and some advice on not being too hard about checking IDs, particularly if the kids had money.

Henry sat on a stool outside the entrance, within a rectangular area cordoned by three cargo ropes sleeved in purple velour. These hung from four freestanding shiny metal posts. It was his area, his turf, his own small section of San Francisco. Drunks and no-goods scuttled across the street to avoid passing the entrance to Hollywood Billiards.

One rainy night, a prostitute tried to be friendly and he impressed her with a firm “No.” He looked past the mascara that ran in the evening downpour, deep into her red-veined eyes and repeated it: “No.” She lowered her head and moved along without any swagger. Her purse trailed behind, bouncing along the sidewalk, a legless dog.

Later, another one pleaded with Henry to let her in out of the rain. She put her hands on her thighs, leaned forward from the waist, and squeezed her breasts together with the insides of her soft brown biceps as if inviting him to rest his head there and for a moment he considered how peaceful that might be but then again, he had to guard his post.

“What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?” he asked.

She bit her bottom lip, crossed her arms, and glared.

He ignored her until she turned away, the bare cheeks of her ass pumping beneath a tight, white miniskirt. He stared at the crease of skin where her hamstrings turned to buttocks until a BMW pulled up. A gaggle of young kids tumbled out and approached him.

Henry hadn’t sat back on his stool. “IDs. Let’s see a driver’s license

*

is not what a negative result would mean,” said the health worker to Clara.

“What do you mean?”

“It wouldn’t be a license to engage in high-risk activities.”

“So you mean, I might still have it?” Clara asked.

“That’s a very real risk. We don’t know your full results yet. Until then, it would not be prudent to engage in sexual activity. The fact that you have shared needles with a lover who has the virus, plus your sex work—”

“But I put condoms on them myself.”

“Are you sure those condoms never break?”

“Well, who looks at them afterwards? I don’t want nothing to do with them condoms after sex when they pull

*

it off, Henry thinking how it looked like hair conditioner inside a balloon. He had greatly respected Clara for that, for insisting he wear a rubber. But that was only the first week. After she moved in, he felt he trusted her enough

*

times that she was bound to get pregnant, but miraculously, not in her hometown of Minerville, where she returned on that morning, so frightened. She had slid, gently, her bald pink stillborn into an irrigation canal that fed the rice fields, which they burned every fall, filling the valley with the smoke of burnt popcorn; only it was burnt rice, worse. Worse that the farmworker who found her baby girl thought it was a drowned denuded dog, which meant it was most likely 27 lumps of man’s seed and none of her own, like in that Cotton Mather song that she had heard in Chico. That was before she had moved to Willows and gotten pregnant, not once returning home to her parents until she felt initial contractions and caught an 0600 hours bus to Oroville. As if they could have helped what happened there, before, during, or in the thereafter, there in the bus station. There, in that hot, sticky station, her water broke and wet her pants, badly, both pant legs soaked. But it was so early in the day that only waking transients were graced by her sweet odor, the smell of life, the birthing and dying that they knew so well. And from Yuba City, the bus route stretched past almond and peach orchards to Minerville, with the burnt hell of Paradise lying far beyond and out of reach and she stayed on until past the second stop when she knew she would cry out. That was when she yanked and yanked the cord like 50 times until the driver at last stopped

*

drinking was what Henry wanted to do. He pictured his liver, a snail without a shell, escaping his body and crawling out of bed and waiting naked in the middle of the room.

Clara pretended to sleep peacefully. She fought the urge to sit up and confess to Henry what had happened to her baby. Maybe tell how she’d gone back to Willows after failing to get home to Minerville, how the horrible newspeople exclaimed horror and how much it hurt to go back to Prince Wendell, still all swollen, and how he insisted that they needed the money and her in no condition. But he wanted to know what had happened, where she had delivered, and how she was feeling. He knew the baby wasn’t his but still he was concerned. Nice, but concerned only because he was waiting to tell her that he had HIV, that he was positive, as if being sick was something to be positive about. And how had the dead child looked, Wendell asked, and wouldn’t the doctors have known? They had done all sorts of blood tests on the dead infant. Why didn’t anyone say if my baby girl had AIDS? If so, I do, too, like you, Wendell. They should have screamed it out because Wendell was now more than ever all about shared pain and deliberate action, her skin clung to the needle they shared, because nothing mattered as he gently withdrew it from inside her thigh. Her blood curled and rolled toward the mattress like one of the snails she had seen, inching along. But she escaped, shook free from Wendell’s Willows with a few hundred dollars and a Medi-Cal check for a baby girl that was no longer and a form that asked, “Father,” to which she replied, “none,” pressing down hard against triplicate carbon forms, three

*

nights in a row talking to Henry at Hollywood. In that time, she wore a pretty dress, a long one past the knees, which she could tell he liked. Then three nights at his place. Three and three made six. She stopped paying rent on a room and dropped off her duffel bag before going to the clinic in the Castro for testing and thought she would soon be back in black with the kind of job that she had dreamt about, one that would make Henry proud.

“First, priority one, tell your lover of your situation” was what the health worker said.

Clara kept her eyes closed, unable to look at the helpful young woman, knowing she hadn’t the courage to face Henry. She closed her fists and placed them over her shut eyes, creating a bed of darkness to lie in and sleep soundly, one that didn’t shake. But the caseworker reached and gently pulled down Clara’s hands, letting in

sleep nights
Victor Juhasz

*

light, Henry thought, squinting in the darkness. Maybe lift the shade, or even open the refrigerator—just to see some light, dear God. There was nowhere to go.

He crawled to the corner where he had set up a kitchen counter with old plywood and plastic milk crates. On his knees, he turned on the two-burner electric hot plate. Its coils turned from blue to red to glowing orange. The light smelled faintly of burning plastic. Henry sat back on his heels and massaged his liver. He felt it, his largest organ, protected by his rib cage, on the right side of the law, where he wanted to be. He didn’t like being mistaken for a homeless vagrant—the visions, the self-soiled trousers; the truth: that his hands, ribs, and jaws quivered while he prayed and dialed collect to his parents who refused to help

*

her, those legions of unwed Minerville girls who were unafraid to acknowledge that Mother Nature was in control and their only way was to survive. Clara wondered at their strength. Strong. Strong enough to pull her down into the quicksand of pregnancy, general assistance, and food stamps. Strong like buried zombies reaching up from their graves, through the soil, grabbing the ankles of silly teenagers running in cemeteries on Halloween. She rubbed her no-longer-protruding belly button, which, just like everyone said it would, had popped like the plastic bubble on a Thanksgiving turkey. Thankful that she had Henry, that he had

*

the night off, early in the evening at Hollywood Billiards, playing pool for free, thanking his boss Larry for the drinks.

Henry held the pool cue in both hands, feeling its weight and balance. A shaft of white oak attached by a male-female crown joint to a mahogany seat. Henry bounced the cue in his hands, picturing it as an M-16 with fixed bayonet and remembering the smash-slash-buttstroke-to-the-head move from infantry school. “Like before, on the way here, there was those three guys checking you out,” he said to Clara.

“Honey, what are you talking, what three guys?”

“The three guys hanging out on that corner.”

“I didn’t see nobody.”

“Well, they saw you all right. Looked you right up and down.”

“Oh.” She looked away and smoothed her bangs against her forehead.

“No, no, no,” Henry insisted. He cupped her chin in the palm of his hand and turned her face toward him. “Two of those fellows, they see me and they stop looking at you. The third guy, he sees me right in the eye and then he goes back to looking at you like you was his.”

Clara shook her head free and folded her arms.

“No, no. Don’t you get mad. It’s got nothing to do with you. This is about me. That guy was dissin’ me. I hate that, especially when you’re involved. I go nuts. I could go crazy.”

“They didn’t say nothing, right? Did they?”

“No. But I was ready. For all three of them. I don’t care what might have happened.”

Clara clasped her hands behind his neck and pulled him toward her. She kissed him, hard, putting her tongue down his throat, exploring his lungs, all the way to the bottom of the one on the right, licking black chocolate smog stains and tasting brown nicotine circles. Her tongue splashed through a few inches of bile sweetness that swished in small waves until she at last found his alveoli, which were salty and reminded her of licking a kitchen sponge soaked with blood. Still holding him she thought of that sponge and how she had used it.

He slipped free of her embrace and racked.

“You break,” she said.

The white cue ball accelerated toward the triangular formation of 15 solids and stripes, launching them into random spaces to aerate the green sea of felt

*

him get out of bed, shaking it. “What is it, Henry? Can’t sleep?”

He didn’t answer.

“Henry, I’m—”

“Shaking,” he said.

“Me, too. Let’s have a drink. There’s vodka in the freezer.”

“I know it’s there,” he said. Then, in a whisper, he confessed, “I had some earlier.”

“It’s OK. Have some more.”

“Wait, what? I thought you were going to help me. I love—”

“One drink’s not going to hurt,” she said.

“Clara, I—”

“It’s night,” she promised him. “Come back to sleep.”•

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