Syracuse, NY 13210
Volume 7, 2007
Smilo at Night
The playground swing screeches rhythmically, penetrating his fractured sleep. Neighborhood noise percolates into his half dreaming, then dribbles away. One moment the room is dark enough; the next, infuriatingly bright. Smilo Hawkins rolls over again. He cracks an eye to glance at the clock, then checks himself, "It’s probably only 2:30 p.m. Forget the time. . .I'm dreaming. Strange loose notions. Go mad! N0. . .just sleep!. . .relax. . .stop thinking," he thinks.
After three years working the day shift at Walker State Hospital, Smilo Hawkins' fourth spring was breaking over the earth, and he'd stopped worrying about seniority. He was clean and focused, and he was working. Shit, he'd been off parole now over a year and things were good. And he hadn't known good.
Just Sunday he'd phoned his mother and reveled in it. She'd said, "Oh Miles, I'm so happy for you, son. Steady day work is a blessing and good for the soul, you know, and I'm glad it makes you happy. Your daddy would've been so proud the way you've come around. And working his halls like you are. My oh my, Son!"
They still talked about Smilo's dad, Tyrone Hawkins, at the hospital; the "Forty Year Man" who opened the place somewhere back there in the 1950's. He was given a gold-plated set of keys when he retired. Smilo knew those keys, gathering dust on his daddy's dresser.
And he could hear her tears in how she spoke. "If only he were here to see you now, Son." But Ty had died suddenly of heart failure back while Smilo was in prison, a source of pain for the family never far from anyone's consciousness. Talking with his mom tonight though, feeling grown up, thinking of his daddy, things for once were good. He now knew every inch of the hospital; what lay behind every door, where every tool could be found, how warm the wiring could be allowed to get, which jangly key ring served which emergency. He sometimes wondered if his father had handled the very key rings he now carried.
The boilers, the heating and cooling infrastructure, the chase system linking essential ducts and wire harnesses throughout the whole glorious place, Smilo knew. Some days he felt he alone kept the entire hospital humming. He’d even become someone who said the word infrastructure and knew what the hell he was talking about.
Doctors in scrubs, women and men in suits, all said hi to Smilo Hawkins. He was known. He was trusted. They acknowledged him by name and nodded. He often thought, "If they only knew." It was three years now, going on four. By summer he'd be looking at Supervisor I. He wasn't even thinking any more about getting high, or about the hood crowd, those fools, or about the runnin' and gunnin' from back in those days. Now, every day punching in, and every payday pulling that envelope put another couple weeks and years between the old Smilo and the new. Moving him closer to his daddy.
Sometimes he wondered if good was too good.
Last Friday, just a week ago, though it already felt like a year, right at punch-out at the end of his week, Rucker had motioned to him, and Smilo could see in his supervisor's watery eyes that something was up. Smilo sensed Rucker's anxiety and the pleading in his face before any words came out of his mouth.
"We've lost all these people, Smilo," Rucker blurted. "We've lost key people. We're down four just since New Year's! You know what I'm saying?"
"Yeah, I know…it's…" Smilo began.
"We’re hurtin' and I gotta make a move, Smilo. I have to put you on the One Shift," Rucker said, pouring it out, all at once, his eyes burning and glaring in his own kind of troubled trance.
"The One!? You mean the Overnight?" Smilo said, standing still as the news bled through him.
"I hate this, Smilo! I hate doing this but I'm boxed in. I need a leader for that crew. I have to start you Monday—Monday midnight. Yeah, the Overnight." Rucker continued pushing his own speech. "Three months, the max. There's two new hires: Billy—you've met him—and a really sharp female, Cynthia. They're quick. It should be OK for you, Smilo. Ninety days. I don't see it longer than that. OK, my man?"
Smilo stood lost. He felt ambushed. He hadn't seen this coming; his old fighting, intimidating ways were rusty. He just stood there and took it, not going mad, thinking it best to keep the job, to keep everything he'd earned. But he walked away burning, torn up inside, feeling betrayed by Rucker and by himself for not objecting. Was this shift change to "crew leader" a good thing? Was it for real, like a promotion? Or was Rucker just playing him?
A panicky gloom built around his rage all the way home. "What the fuck! How come me? Goddamn it," he shouted, alone in his car, punching the seat. "The overnight?! That's for freaks, man. That ain't me! When am I gonna sleep? What if I don't sleep? I'll lose my freakin' mind!"
Once home, inside his front door, he stood before the closet mirror and saw himself with jarring clarity. Staring into his own eyes he examined the roundness of his face, inherited from his mother; the freckles sprayed high across his cheeks and the contour of his lips that were his daddy's; his caramel skin, the color of flame, the marriage of his mother's and father's tones he often realized he saw in virtually no one else. "He knows I'm mixed. That's why he's doing this." Then he thought again. "No, maybe it's because I am good. And this is how he rewards me? Whatever."
He felt angry, and he felt angry about being made to be feel angry. And this, he knew, spelled trouble. This was one thing he'd learned in the rehabs and from the counselors in prison. "People, places and things…stinkin' thinking…triggers." It was all flooding back as he stood before the mirror. But Smilo had no intention of unraveling, even though all at once it looked much nearer than it had in years.
The next morning, Saturday, he played an angry round of golf with Theo and Donny, cousins he'd been close with from childhood. They were family that had stood by him his eighteen months in State on assault charges nine years ago. The springtime course was just drying out. The bare April trees and grey, matted grass matched his mood: barren, beaten down. Smilo, Donnie, and Theo were often the only black faces on the course. They were their own world. They listened to Smilo; they cursed along with him; they gave advice.
"Man, there is not one ounce of defeat in you, Smilo. You hear me? You remember that. You stand tall; you make this work, man. Sometimes you just gotta step up, you know. They're always testing us. You know that." Donny offered.
And from Theo, "Smilo, brother, turn it around. Maybe there's some hidden something in it; some surprise, some good thing unexpected. Who's this new female? Know what I'm saying?"
They had his back, and he was lucky to have them. This was their best take on things, he knew. He carried their words away with him, but still he felt fury and worry.
Monday he returned to the range, but alone, and only to drive balls. He was in no mood for the course by himself. "What am I doing here?" he asked himself peering around at the empty range. "I'm supposed to be at work." The shift change loomed that night. He stormed home irritable and fretful. He had flash memories of the day he was released from State, those first moments outside the fence in civilian sunlight, in street clothes, untethered, nowhere to go.
He reviewed his plan with himself as he forced down some dinner, tensing himself for the coming changes, "I'll set the alarm, sleep 'til eleven, then go in. Weird. . . ." He drew the curtains, tucked them in tight around their sills, and placed a heavy shirt over his eyes. With sheer will he drifted off. It was just before six in the evening in the strange April dusk.
The alarm jarred him awake, disoriented. Major parts of his brain were still shut off as he dragged himself from bed, into his clothes and out the door. He entered the usual building but was greeted by an entirely different shift of indifferent workers without sympathy or recognition. He might as well have been reporting to a new job on day one in some strange city. The hours crawled by in a surreal haze. "I'm working all night. . ." he kept saying to himself, as if to keep oriented.
Billy and Cynthia were cooperative, quick learners. Rucker was right on that. But Smilo felt a smothered contempt beneath everything he told them the entire night. He walked them through the routines, showed them the breaker boxes, the shutoffs, the switches and gauges that made the hospital run. "Ninety days, bullshit," he thought, driving home. "They'll be ready in a week. What's Rucker thinking?"
Back home a new confusion took hold. The sun was coming up and he could not recall what day it was. "Oh yeah, Tuesday. Morning." It was eight o'clock. "And don't forget," one sluggish part of his mind told another, "you go back again tonight." He slumped into his living room recliner to rest, then remembered to go to bed.
His brain felt soupy, with the crush of a headache pushing in from the back of his skull. "Should I go to bed now? Or should I wait? I'm exhausted now. It's fine. But am I tired enough?" Quickly, he sank toward sleep, but a car muffler on the street out front rattled him awake. A moment's quiet let him drift off again as he ran through halls of blue carts that got in his way and clocks rotating beside his face. Go mad! The stupid rumbling engines of Toby's car filled the helmet of flowers, until he awoke to the construction generators firing up for the day at the bottom of his street. It was the start of the workday for the majority of the world. "Oh my god," he thought, "I'm sunk." He scrambled for the earplugs he'd purchased at the pharmacy. He wadded the shirt for his eyes that had worked the night before. In the playground across the street the swing screeched rhythmically, penetrating his fractured sleep. He tossed and tossed in Theo's boat, but a towel blocked his breathing until the crowd at the lake picked him up and yelled his name "Mine! No!" A dull thunderous chant, and then the mail carrier thudded across his porch. Kids on their way home from school or skipping out with spring fever squealed in laughter on the sidewalk out front. These intrusions punctured his room, his mind, his sleep.
By three in the afternoon he'd slept maybe two good hours. This would not do. "I'll snap. Who sleeps in broad daylight? How am I going to do this? I won't make the week." He felt like a cardboard version of himself. He imagined himself a ranting, lunatic cartoon figure, loose on the street.
At work no one understood. He brought it up, but got uncomprehending looks. Both Billy and Cynthia had worked nights for years, but were afraid, early on in the job, to give Smilo advice or tell him what to do. They needed him to be with it.
"It's the best of all worlds!" said a coffee-stained fellow they called Tube, when Smilo cornered him in his dull yellow custodial uniform. Tube polished floors at night as all the world slept. As it happened, Smilo's locker was just two over from Tube's but in three years they'd never met, until tonight.
"I got my mornings, I got my afternoons, my evenings too! Then I work!" Tube laughed and revealed teeth that mostly explained it.
"When do you sleep?" Smilo asked.
"I don't!" He laughed again with a wheeze of mingled cigarette and coffee fumes.
By four in the morning when Smilo brought the two new staff to the loading docks to meet the laundry trucks from across town and the hospital supply trucks from Ohio and Pennsylvania, he felt dead inside. The cool night air swept up into corners of the dirty dock, rustling litter and evoking a deep mixture of difficult emotions inside him.
"I'm in trouble, Ma," he whispered into the phone when he got home. "Two nights in and I'm already afraid of cracking up. Or going off."
"Miles, you worry me with talk like that. Would it help to sleep here, at home?"
"No, I couldn't. Thanks, Ma. I have to make this work, here, at my place. But I'm already feeling dizzy, kinda undone. My jaw is tight and my eyes are burning. I don't want to blow this."
Sheer exhaustion knocked him out 'til noon, but as suddenly as he'd fallen asleep, he popped back up into semi-sleep all afternoon, carrying mail past the tremblers, into the surging flocks of birds. A large balloon. Near the bologna store inside the large building where he held his eyeballs in from falling out and from going mad, he sat at the edge of his bed, head in hands, tallying the annoyances. The mail carrier, the children, the generators, traffic, even the springtime birds...the damned birds, the swing, the wind. Each took their turn, pinpricking him as he sat there, beginning to tremble. "They all. . .have to stop. I have to do something. . .I have to stop the noises. . .for good, if I'm going to sleep."
Friday night—his fifth on the Overnight—was the worst. The shift was deathly, a unreal dream beyond his reach, shrouded from his brain in a haze of apathy, thoughts of suicide and approaching lunacy. The halls stretched beyond his sight in speckled, salt and pepper linoleum. The fluorescence burned his eyes, reflecting off the flooring in gleaming bands as he death marched through his rounds. His body hurt. His head throbbed. His jangling keys were too loud. When Cynthia and Billy spoke with him it was as though through cotton.
The weekend passed in a lost, befuddled mess of despair. He watched TV but took in nothing. He napped in a sweat with his jaw clenched. He called friends but hung up before they answered. He tried to read, but the words just swam.
Monday noon brought new anguish. Week Two, he thought. "I will NOT go mad over this." He lay down, trying for five hours sleep but felt a new twitching in his eyelids. The playground swing. Again. Two loud cars. A pause. The mail carrier.
He threw off the covers and sat bolt upright, electric, enraged, "Agggh! That's it!"
He stormed into his basement, giggling now, "I need some things. I WILL END ALL THIS NOISE. I can! I have to! I have to sleep! They have no idea what's coming!! This is me! Here comes the Cracked Smilo! Go mad, go mad. . .Mine! No!!"
He stuffed things into two crumpled plastic shopping bags and burst out the front door.
First, he clipped a note to his mailbox, "Hold mail at Stevenson Station. No delivery 'til further notice."
Then he stormed to the bottom of the hill where the lunch-break generators sat idle. He dragged the construction wooden horses into the road to block all traffic. With a lusty exuberance, proud of his inventiveness, he stuffed one golf ball each into the generators' exhaust pipes and hammered them solidly in place, bulging the pipe ends.
Giggling. . .Go mad!
He marched to the top of his street, across from his house, to the playground where children and mothers lounged comfortably, innocently unaware. "They must wonder who the hell I am!" he thought to himself. "It's all over now."
The screeching swing.
He fished through his bag. Moms whisked their children up into their arms and scurried away fearfully while he climbed all over the swing set, spraying aerosol lubricant in every direction, at every moving part.
Next he cut the three bird feeders from their wire lines in his neighbors' yards and plunked them courteously on their respective porches. The end of birds.
He victoriously re-entered his house. He stripped off his clothes, felt his nakedness, and collapsed back into bed. He laid still, his hammering heart slowly easing, though still resounding in his ears. He listened.
No traffic. . .No squealing song of the swing. . .No birds. . .No mail carrier. . .
No construction. . .just good, lasting, quiet. And no harm to anyone. . .ah. . .here comes a little sleepiness. . .yes. . .so quiet now the swimmers could move out from the beach. My key ring, like a raft, big and silent. . .long halls for the water. There's Billy and Cynthia and Rucker with their funny shorts on. . .they have the boat, held above their heads. . .and the waves now, so smooth, the water in the bologna store. . . .