Losing Sleep

About nine months ago I lost my right leg.

I was on the road crew for that bypass off 83 they’ve been building since I was in high school, and I got tagged by a bulldozer. Turned everything below the knee into jelly. I passed out in the ambulance and the doc axed it before I even woke up.

 The guy driving the dozer was drunk, and an immigrant without a work visa, so I got a quick settlement and a fat payout. I don’t blame Eduardo. His mother had just died, and he had 3 kids to feed. Sometimes a shitty week just turns shittier. I’d make him buy me beer for life if they hadn’t deported him.

So, I figured I could get by on the settlement money for the next five years or so, longer with a side hustle or two. Which is why I started hanging out at The Zion.

You see, phantom leg is a bitch. The docs say my leg is as healed as it’s ever going to get, but my brain is still convinced it’s there. And on fire. All the time.

My doc got me set me up with a pretty decent prosthetic leg and pills. The good ones. The ones that go for 100 bucks a pop on the street. I figured out pretty early on if I take one when I wake up and start drinking around noon, I don’t need to take another til lights out. Fortunately, The Zion was just half a block from my apartment and sold two-dollar beers until 7. I made 700 bucks a week selling the surplus to a junkie in my building and only spent like 150 on booze. I won’t be buying a Lamborghini any time soon, but it covers the rent.

Obviously, I could have saved more if I just drank at home, but a man gets lonely sitting around the house all day and Gail, Zion’s bartender, never got too pissed if I got a little handsy around happy hour.

Anyway, I’d been posted up on my usual stool for about an hour yesterday when this guy comes in. He’s got a newspaper and he’s wearing hospital scrubs. Even though it’s just me and Gail in the place, he sits at the other end of the bar and loudly orders, “Whatever whiskey you’ve got on the top shelf. Neat.”

Gail rolled her eyes and grabbed a bottle from below the bar, because The Zion doesn’t have a top shelf, and poured him a glass.

“Leave the bottle,” he said and held out three bills.

“This stuff doesn’t cost one of those,” Gail said.

“It doesn’t matter.”

She shrugged and took the money.

He downed the glass, then filled and downed it twice more in the space of a minute.

“If my doctor drinks like that in the middle of the day, I might need to get a second opinion,” I said.

The man gave me a disdainful look, then saw my prosthetic leg and softened his expression.

“Don’t worry,” he said pouring another. “I’ve clocked out. Taking a personal day. Wouldn’t do to get caught drinking on the job, I’m famous after all.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Sure, if you’re into medical journals. Sweetheart, can you get me another glass, I think I want to drink with my new friend here. And get yourself one too.”

He stood, clutching his bottle and paper in one hand and downed another shot with the other before slumping onto the stool next to mine. Gail set a glass down in front of me and he filled it nearly to the brim with brown liquid before doing the same for Gail and himself.

“To dreams,” he said.

“To dreams,” we echoed, clinking glasses together. The doc downed his, Gail and I sipped ours.

“Rough day?” Gail asked.

The doc barked a laugh.

“You could say that. I lost a patient. THE patient. You guys know the name Harold Shriver?”

It tickled something in the back of my head.

“He’s the no sleep guy, right?” Gail said.

The doctor nodded, pouring himself another drink and topping ours off.

“I’m the one who discovered him,” he said making air quotes with his free hand around the word discovered.

I remembered vaguely. A man who’d simply woken up one morning and never went back to bed. He’d lived a normal life without any of the usual adverse effects of sleep deprivation. He’d been something of a minor celebrity for a year or so, appearing on late night shows and Oprah probably, but I didn’t really pay attention to that kind of thing.

“He’s dead?” I asked. “How?”

“Ah, well, that’s a surprisingly long story,”

It was my turn to laugh.

“I don’t know if you noticed, doc, but we’ve got nothing but time.”

The doctor gave a small smile, clearly this was what he wanted, and for the first time, took a slow savoring sip of his whiskey.

“That’s not bad actually,” hise said and plunged into his tale.

“I’m sure you remember the basics. Harold was just a normal guy. Late 20s. Pretty smart, but hardly exceptional, grinding it out at a mid-tier marketing firm. Just one of the herd, destined for a life in middle management. Even so, those places can get pretty competitive and there’s a lot of pressure on employees to put in extra hours.

“With a new wife and a baby on the way, Harold knew he had to push himself if he was going to provide. So, he slept less and less. Eight hours became six, six became four. You get the idea.

“One night, he’s working from home on some presentation for his boss and doesn’t make it to bed. No big deal, right? We all pulled all-nighters in college.”

I gave a snort at this, but the doc didn’t seem to notice. I had definitely not wasted time on college.

“But the next night he’s feeling fine and the boss wants to take his presentation upstairs for the partners, so he works through the night again. Night after that Harold figures he should get some shut eye, and besides, his wife says she sleeps better when he’s lying next to her, so he goes to bed. Only now he can’t sleep. It’s weird. He should be exhausted, hell, he shouldn’t be able to see straight, but honestly, Harold feels fine.

“So, he listens to his wife snoring for an hour and decides to get some work done. Same thing happens the next night, and now Harold is getting worried. And he should be.

“There’s this story where Napoleon decided sleep was just a waste of time and vowed to stay awake forever. He lasted 3 days and it took him a week to recover. That’s because folks who stay up for longer than 72 hours go clinically insane.

“Old Harold’s been up for at least 96. But he can’t call off work to see a doctor, he’s got a presentation with the partners to make, so he puts it off.

“They love it, but his wife is panicking. He’s fine though. Harold can’t sleep that night either but the next day is Saturday, his day off. She makes him an appointment and drives him there just to be safe.

“Enter yours truly.

“Not to brag, but I’m a pretty good at what I do. Third in my class at Berkeley. Residency at Johns Hopkins, a bunch of fellowships you probably don’t care about, but mean a lot if you wear a stethoscope. What I’m saying is, by the time I met Harold, I was the rising star in the field of sleep science.

“I only tell you this, so you know when I say I’ve never seen another case like Harold’s– that’s a big fucking deal.

“His vitals should have been all over the place, but his readings were the definition of average for a 28-year-old office drone. I figured he was lying, playing some sort of prank or trying to get out of work, but his insurance was top notch, and I’m nothing if not a capitalist, so I told him he needed to stay at the hospital for observation for a few days. He didn’t want to, but his wife made him. She was really scared.

“We ran a bunch of extra tests on reflexes and cognitive functions. He rated as fairly normal. Then we kept him under observation. For a week.

“Motherfucker didn’t sleep a wink. Every day we’d run the tests and every day he’d rate as normal. We ran CAT scans and EKGs. We looked at his blood. You name it we did it. It didn’t matter what time of day it was, his brain and body acted like it’d just had a solid 8 hours of uninterrupted rest.

“After the first day, Harold sent his wife to collect everything from his office. After all, he had a lot of momentum going, he couldn’t let something like an unprecedented medical phenomenon get in the way of climbing the corporate ladder.

“Meanwhile my bosses were seeing dollar signs and if I’m being honest, so was I. Medical discoveries aren’t made every day and no one in the community had even heard of something like this.

“I mean animals sleep. All of them. There have been some studies with bullfrogs that say otherwise but they’re all shoddy science in my opinion. We aren’t sure why, but sleep is a law of nature. And here we had not just an animal, but a human breaking that law. The pressure was on to find out why.

“Spoiler alert: We never did.

“More data just lead to more questions. We brought in specialists from universities and hospitals all over the country, hacks and luminaries alike, but nobody could find any answers.  

“We wanted to keep Harold at the hospital until we figured out how whatever was happening to him worked, but after a week he insisted on going home. We don’t live in communist Russia, so we had to let him go. And I started writing.

“My findings first appeared in The Lancet, which is prestigious, but still, I thought that would be the end of it. Well maybe that’s not true. I knew I’d found something special in Harold’s case, but God’s honest truth, I had no idea his story would catch on like it did.

“The morning my article ran I started getting calls from journalists all over the country. By the end of the day, they’d managed to find Harold’s number as well. I have to admit I was pleased. I’d published a time or two before, to positive if a bit lackluster response, so the attention was gratifying, but Harold didn’t see it that way at first.

“He came storming into my office the next morning furious, shouting about lawsuits and privacy. I simply reminded him he’d signed a waiver to allow me to publish when I started his sleep study. He didn’t like that much, but he got on board pretty quickly when somebody from his office pointed out this much attention couldn’t be bad for someone who worked in marketing.

“He agreed to let me continue studying him on weekends as long as the public relations branch of his firm could handle the media outreach.

“That turned out to be the best deal I ever made.

“His firm had connections everywhere, radio, TV, newspapers, and we had a story unlike anything anybody had seen before. ‘Sticky’ is what the guys at the firm called it. And in the meantime, we were gaining valuable knowledge about Harold’s condition.

“In addition to not needing sleep, Harold couldn’t be put to sleep through drugs or medication. Local anesthesia would numb pain, but no amount of drugs would knock him out. We did discover lack of oxygen affected brain function but even as his body cried out for air, he did not lose consciousness.  

“Meanwhile, Harold and I made appearances all over the place, both together and on our own. The clip of Harold drinking an entire bottle of Tequila and then reciting the whole Gettysburg address on the Tonight Show got like 8 million views.”

“Oh yeah,” I said. “I remember that one.”

The doc gave me an annoyed look and continued.

“My appearance on Doctor Oz was the second highest rated of all time. Not too shabby if I do say so myself. I got a book deal. He sold the rights to his life story to a movie studio. Sure, the research wasn’t really bearing fruit, but I thought we’d made it to easy street.

“Six months in, it all came to a screeching halt.”

“What happened?” Gail asked. A few regulars had wandered in as the doc spoke,but Gail quickly shushed their greetings and poured them their usuals. Everyone crowded around to hear the doctor’s tale.

“Harold just didn’t want to do it anymore. First, he started bailing on public appearances and then he stopped coming in for tests. I eventually showed up to his house and he said his wife had just given birth and then he said, and I quote, ‘Didn’t have time for it anymore.’ Rich, coming from a guy with 8 extra hours in the day.

“I didn’t take it well. Truth be told, Harold was basically my meal ticket and since I still couldn’t figure out WHY he didn’t need to sleep, I didn’t have a whole lot going on without him. I yelled at him. Raged. Pleaded. But Harold was done.

“My book came out and it didn’t even hit the best sellers list. That one hurt. A couple months later and the TV appearances went away. Another six months, and we were barely a memory, just one more answer on Jeopardy–a weird pop culture reference in a world drowning in a sea of content.

“I’d see things about Harold in the news periodically. ‘Sleepless Man Leaves Day Job’. And maybe a year later, ‘Man Who Lost Sleep Now Losing Wife.’ I never read past the headlines.

“I wanted to put it all behind me, but this kind of thing can stick with you the rest of your career. Even though dozens of the best doctors and scientists in the world went over my work and couldn’t find a single reason for Harold’s condition, I was the failure.

“I’ve managed to dig myself out, though. My practice is doing well these days, regular folks don’t stop me on the street anymore, but they also don’t have any idea I’m the doctor who couldn’t figure out how to end the need for sleep. I’m happy… ish. I’ve got a relationship. Things are good.

“Then I pick up the paper this morning and it’s right there at the top of the Obits.”

The doc casually unfolded his paper and pointed to an article taking up the better part of a page.

“Sleepless Man Finds Eternal Rest”

“Shit,” I said. “Sorry Doc.”

He gave another bitter bark of a laugh.

“I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t wished it on him a time or two.”

“How’d it happen?” Gail asked.

“Well that’s the part that has me drinking.” He said, handing her the paper.

She read for a few seconds mouthing the words silently.

“Starvation?”

The doc nodded and downed what was left of his drink. The bottle was empty.

“Cliff notes are, he hadn’t paid his rent in months, which is weird because he sold the rights to his life story for four million, back when things were hot. The landlord did all the standard stuff, final notices and all that. When the deputies came to evict him, they found him on the couch–unwashed and emaciated, dead as dinner.”

“I don’t get it.” I said. “If he had money, how’d he wind up starving to death?”

The doc shrugged.

“Why you asking me? I couldn’t even figure out why he didn’t need sleep.”

“Come on…you must have a theory.”

The doc attempted to pour another glass and when only a couple drops fell into his cup, he gave a disappointed grunt.

He was drunk-sloppy drunk, and when his eyes met mine, they glistened with unshed tears.

“Dreams,” he said. “We don’t really know why we dream. We don’t think about them too much because on any given morning, most of us don’t even remember them.

“When I first met Harold, he was ambitious, driven. He wasn’t brilliant, but he had dreams. I think when Harold stopped sleeping, he quit dreaming too. He stopped doing the public appearances, then he quit his job, then his marriage, and eventually he quit paying his bills. I think he finally just quit getting up to go to the fridge, quit moving, quit… life.”

“Jesus,” I said.

“One of the first things Harold ever told me was that when he was a kid, he had terrible nightmares. I’m not talking about falling dreams, I mean hellfire and tentacle monsters, real Lovecraftian shit. The last thing he ever said is he wished they’d come back…. That’s where I fucked up.

“If I wasn’t so obsessed with the fame, with advancing my career…if I’d listened. If I’d done my job… I would have found a way to give them back to him.”  

The bar fell quiet for a few moments. The air felt heavy. I could hear ticking from a clock over the bar I’d never even noticed before.

Finally, I said, “That’s a hell of a story Doc.”

He started and I could see his eyes dilate as he struggled to focus on my face.

“Let me ask you something, friend,” he said.  

“Sure.”

“When did you lose the leg?”

“Nine, ten months ago.”

“Phantom leg still pretty bad then?”

“Hurts like a motherfucker.”

“What they give you for that?”

“Fentanyl.”

The Doc gave a derisive grunt.

“Figures. Free piece of medical advice. Find something else. Go to physical therapy, do gimp yoga, meditate. Find a weed dealer, you’re white, nobody’s gonna arrest you. Just get off that shit. It’s a dream killer.”

So, I flushed the pills this morning.  

Thanks for reading Losing Sleep! If you enjoyed it hit that like button and leave a comment. If you’d like to check out more of my weird stories and musings about life, the universe, and the meaning of existence, then subscribe to mindful of madness. You can also find me on twitter @drewjokeringram or on Instagram @andrewingram88. Thanks, my self-esteem depends on you.

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