Driving in the Early Dark, Ted Falls Asleep

Joseph Scapellato

Ted drives.

Ted tells himself, Ted drives.

Ted tells himself, Too tired to sleep too tired to sleep too tired to.

Ted chokes the wheel and slaps the wheel, hissing, "Don't! you! forget! this!" His words become hot breath—his hot breath, fingers—the fingers wend into his eyes.

The sun is cracking, struggling behind a headboard of clouds. The sky not brightening so much as leaking night, the only thing worth watching no matter how much they move. No matter how much they move, Oklahoma doesn't. It is fucking everywhere.

Ted thinks, How about some heat? He clicks the knob: ON.

Some heat presses like a pillow into Ted's unwashed face, his nose, the skinny brushes of his eyebrows.

Some heat nods Ted's head toward the wheel he's slapped and choked.

Ted jolts—he clicks the knob: OFF. The chill returns, banking back like a fog. To his right, Constance sleeps, a Navajo blanket laying skirt-like on her lap. Her face tucked away to the window. In the backseat, their boxes. In their boxes, their things. They are moving, them and their things, for her Chicago job. Celebrate. Say goodbye to Arizona and all their Arizona friends and all their Arizona miseries. Hit the road and drive all day to the bar at the Best Western in Oklahoma City, to two pitchers and stuffed potato skins and taking turns trying not to fall asleep, not to look at anything, any who are we, any what now.

The tab to her credit card. Practice. They weren't old but they would be.

And now they're moving in the early dark of their last day on the road and could die if Ted falls asleep but Ted's too tired to fall asleep, "So don't!" he whispers, "Don't forget!" and grinds his gummy eyes—thumb in one, index in the other, a truck across the turnpike rolling glare along the windshield, painting his hands white.

Think! Talk! Ted!

Thinking talking Ted, to wake, recalls famous times he's fallen asleep.

Last night: Back from the hotel bar, Constance gave out a shuddering sigh and shook her body and looked him down, and despite their lack of whatever it was, wanted to, right then. They peeled off their sitting-sweaty clothes and smashed together on sheets that stank of cleaning agents.

 "You're drooling."

"No way," he said, waking, wiping his chin, "where?" She squirmed off and over, rubbing her face in fury.

Buckets of white glare—two trucks across the turnpike, side by side, one in passing. Ted rubs his fingers on the ribbing of the wheel. He blinks with force and focuses on the windshield. His right eye flutters.

The eyelid spasms. Is spasming.

With each convulsion it feels less and less like flesh, more and more like someone else's curtain. When it stops jerking, it mashes shut.

Ted's brother Big Michael used to mash butterflies. Touch this, Ted, it's sticky.

It'll turn you on, Ted.

Big Michael moved to Texas to sell homes.

Ted attempts to blink his eye open. He needs it working by Chicago to look for jobs. He scrunches his cheek and massages the lid. Stars spark behind the heavy blackness, winking into the vision of his left eye, but the whole of it stays closed, sealed to his eyeball.

Ted tries to click his closed eye to ON. ON, he clicks, ON.

The eye stays OFF.

Ted mumbles, "Gray-bearded bastard."

Ted turns up the music. One man whistling. He tries to whistle with him.

Ted punches off the music. It flickers back on, weakly, then peters out, going until gone. Constance and her Navajo skirt are also gone, blanketed to Ted's right by the blackness of his jammed lid.

Ted remembers falling asleep on her lap.

Ted remembers falling asleep while she was falling asleep on his lap.

Ted remembers when he used to feel okay waking her to talk.

"Because we'll be together, Ted," says Ted, as Constance.

But for who can tell how long there's been only Ted—Ted, the slow-cracking sun, and the cold. He remembers folks he likes, to keep him company, so not Big Michael, and that's when the middle-aged man he used to work with, the gray-bearded bastard who slept with one eye open, grumbles from the boxes. What's-his-name.

The best summer job he'd ever had: Public Works, high school.

"Best job job," he says, yawning, driving trucks, chipping trees, watering Chicagos, staying awake. Awake. Burt. Bart? "Burke," croaks Ted, blinking with his open eye, clutching a rake in his first week with old man Burke at the noisy helm of a backhoe digging a pit in a park, sweating, the engine howling, Ted watching that dirty yellow bucket scoop and move, scoop and move, like chewing holes in the earth was the only work worth doing—until the bucket froze, mid-air.

Ted hustled over to peek into the cab. Burke, buffeted by the growl of the machine, asleep at the controls. One of his eyes open. Heavy-lidded and drowsy and drugged, but open. Ted moved closer, amazed.

"Burke!" he shouted. The man awoke, his open eye unglazing.

"Look, kid. I'm older than you'll be when you're my age."

Does everybody sleep with one eye open?

"Lemme put it this way. How much you hate love."

I don't want it.

"Not enough."

Burke sinks into the hole, banging the bucket and shouting. "Go home!"

The breakroom. Burke's one-eyed catnaps after his meatball sandwich, the shaded windows leaking night. Burke tips back in his chair, hands folded on his Oklahoma, and dozes, wheezing, whistling, one lid jammed open—the eyeball unstatic, it floats and flickers, petering.

Eli—the scrawny boy who joined the Army at the end of June—who made work not work with jokes—him and Ted, their laughter—here he was, don't forget him—Ted forgot him—together they approach the strangeness of sleeping Burke, Eli waving a permanent marker.

"A dick?" he whispers, dead or wounded.

"With eyeballs for balls," giggles Ted.

"This won't work," says Constance, relieved. She tugs up her turnpike: between her legs, her naked back.

Eli pops the marker's cap. Big Michael smears black butterflies. They lean in, smell meatballs, and see their smoking breath.

Burke, one eye drooling, in a voice choked by wheels of sleep, says, "Forget it."

When you sleep with one eye open, what do you see with the eye that's open?

Burke takes a bite of Arizona. "Kid, I see the future."

Eli says, "I'm going to die."

Ted is crying. "Don't."

Eli dies. Burke dies. Constance dies. Big Michael lives. Ted dies and wakes to Oklahoma everywhere, the white line waving, headlights hauling blinding paint. The board of night explodes into splinters. He tries to click his open eye to ON.

ON, he clicks.