“Bartok’s Bed” by Peter Groesbeck
I feel him slide into bed behind me.
The expanse of bed on the other side is normally a broad, smooth landscape, like the Salt Flats of Bolivia or the I-355 toward Wichita. Unless I throw a leg out over the covers on a sweltering summer night, the span of sheet, blanket, and comforter on the left remain unbroken and undisturbed. The saleswoman had called it a California King, but I use only the merest sliver of real estate; I crowd the outside edge of what would be the Nevada border.
This new presence next to me has altered the landscape, his weight causing my body to slide downslope toward the center of the bed, away from the edge, and into the valley where my hip meets his.
When I was 11, my grandmother Smith told me that she believed every woman eventually reached a point when she realized she would be sleeping alone for the rest of her life.
“And when it happens to you, you’ll be glad,” she said.
I had asked why she and my grandfather had their own beds, instead of sharing a bed like my mother and father. When I grew older, I just accepted that the arrangement was probably a nod to an old-fashioned form of birth control that had outlived its usefulness. As a child, though, it made sense to me that my grandmother could rest only if she was alone in the bed.
This was because Grandma Smith suffered from bad nerves. It was a family affliction, and Grandma’s older sister, Weimer, never left home without a travel bag full of prescription tranquillizers. Unlike Weimer, though, my grandmother was Pentecostal; Grandma Smith and the Lord didn’t approve of anything more powerful than the occasional Bayer aspirin.
“Weimer has turned into a pill-head,” my grandma would say.
Although she spoke often of the state of her nerves, I never understood the nature of my grandmother’s affliction. I knew, though, that even if my brother Butch and I were not the cause, we were almost certainly an irritant. My grandmother believed in children being seen but not heard, and she preferred to see them when they were out in the yard.
“You kids are on my nerves,” she would say. “Go outside.”
My grandmother lived in the last house at the end of East B Street, where the asphalt ended abruptly in a grassy field, and where, in midsummer, switch grass grew hip-high to the adults. Full of snakes, ticks, and chiggers, it served as well as any fence.
Across the street from Grandma’s house, a young couple moved into a mobile home smaller than a school bus. He worked nights at the shoe factory. His wife slept alone, without so much as a tiny dog for company. With the great stretch of overgrown field on the one side and a phalanx of neighbors on the other, she slept sound and unconcerned. Then one early morning, the husband returned home from work to find the door to the trailer hanging open. Alarmed, he leapt up the steps and into the darkened trailer, calling out for his wife. Other than being startled by his shouts, she was unharmed. She had been sleeping peacefully in a bedroom in the back.
He chastised her for being so careless and for frightening him so.
“But I locked the door,” she said. “I remember.”
She was just as certain when the young man found the door open a second time, a few days later.
“Have you seen anything suspicious?” he asked my grandparents.
“We’ll keep an eye out,” Grandpa Smith said. “She’ll be fine.”
After the young man walked back to his trailer across the street, though, my grandparents seemed less sure.
“There ain’t no reason for anybody to be coming up into the house like that unless they’re up to something,” my grandmother said. “Raymond, maybe you should load a gun, just in case.”
And so my grandparents left their porch light on all that night and the night after, and both kept a sort of watch through the diamond-shaped window set high into the front door. Three mornings later, the young man came home to find the door once more swinging back and forth in the morning breeze. Inside, his wife had been waked by the squeal of the hinges and sat upright and stock-still in the bed, too afraid to climb out to see if she was still alone in the house.
Sometimes, when we were between places to live and there was nowhere else to go, my family stayed at Grandma and Grandpa Smith’s house. Grandma might have been short-tempered, but my brother Butch and I loved staying there. All my good feelings about Grandma’s house, though, vanished at bedtime. Without enough beds to go around, when we stayed over, I slept with my grandmother.
Grandma’s nerves were especially sensitive at bedtime. Even my blinking while sharing her bed was enough to cause her pain. She was disturbed by my every movement, no matter how small—every eye-roll, every deep and burdened sigh that her request for quiet compelled me to make. Sleeping with Grandma was an exercise in pretending to be dead.
“Sister, BE STILL,” she would whisper.
And I would lie motionless, unable to tell in the absolute darkness if the ceiling was six feet or six inches from my face. For all I knew, the man who had been breaking into the little trailer across the street might at that very moment be standing at the foot of the bed, watching me as I tried not to wiggle my grandmother awake.
The dread of the young couple living in the tiny trailer traveled up one side of East B Street and back down again. The police were called, and although they gathered fingerprints and interviewed the neighbors, they had no leads.
“Maybe the wife is doing it,” someone said.
Porch lights shone through the night at every house, and these—along with the street lights and natural gas yard lamps, lit the neighborhood like a carnival fairway.
It was my grandmother who suggested that the young woman sprinkle the floor of the trailer with flour when she went to bed. They were sitting together on the porch, my grandmother peeling apples, the young woman sitting, anxious and exhausted, beside her. On the step below, Butch and I gnawed the apple skins, eyes on our little metal cars and the pocked concrete.
“Just spread a thin dusting on the floor, like you would on the bottom of a cake pan,” Grandma said.
I looked up at her, shocked at the thought of purposely tossing flour onto the floor.
“Then maybe you can tell by the footprints who it is,” she said, “but probably not. You can sure tell what he’s up to, though.”
For a few mornings after that, the wife’s first chore every day was to sweep the undisturbed flour up off the floor. Then, just after daybreak on the fourth morning, my grandmother drew the curtains of the big picture window. She could plainly see, even from across the street, the open trailer door and the absence of the young husband’s car in the drive.
“Raymond! Come quick!”
They hurried across the street and stopped at the stoop, confused to find that the flour was undisturbed. Grandma called out for the young woman.
“This beats all I ever seen,” my grandmother said, and reached for the knob to climb up the wooden steps and into the darkened kitchen.
She stopped with one foot on the bottom step and one still on the ground.
“Why, look here,” she said. “This door is still locked.”
The young woman appeared in the doorway.
“Girl! Have you not been pulling this door to at night? You’ve got to pull it shut until it closes tight or you might as well leave it wide open.”
The night my husband Carroll left me, he threw open the door with force enough to make it bounce back on its hinges. He leapt off the porch and onto the stoop, taking the last two steps in one great gazelle-legged stride. I watched him sprint across the yard to the road where his truck was parked and as he ran, a car cruised slowly by. When the car on the street was positioned in line with Carroll, I lost his every detail. The headlights cast him, instead, in inky silhouette. For the briefest moment, while poised mid-stride and mid-air, he was stock still. Time stopped, and I couldn’t have said for sure if he was running away or toward me.
For a while after he left, I didn’t sleep. Hannah, who was ten, started sleeping in the bed with me. My aunt had given us a kitten who liked to nap in the crook of my knee, and I brought the dog into the house and up into the bed with us. Girl, cat, and dog stayed in my bed for two years, but it seemed to be a great many more than that before I was able to sleep again.
I dreamed that Carroll came to my bed. I felt him spooned up behind me, just as I have in the past been aware of a sleeping kiss or a caress before waking. I reached for the lamp and rolled over in bed, surprised to find him there.
He squinted against the light, and after a few seconds rolled over and brought one arm up to lay it over his eyes, palm up, fingers open.
I give, he seemed to say.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, sitting up. “How did you get in?”
He sighed and sat upright, swinging his feet onto the floor. He rubbed his head briskly with both hands and I watched his back—freckled and smooth, wide between the shoulders and narrow at the waist—ripple with the motion.
He stood and stepped into his jeans, zipping them, but neglecting the button. Then he walked around and sat at the foot of the bed. He reached out and placed his hand on my ankle.
“Try not to be afraid,” he said. “It’s only me.”
There was a phone in my hand and so I dialed 911, feeling as I did that I was the one who must have done something wrong.
When the police arrived, they found him still sitting at the foot of the bed. He stood when they asked him to, and he placed both hands behind his back so that they could fasten the handcuffs. Then they led him, barefooted, down the stairs and out into the street.
“I don’t understand,” I said to their backs. “Why is he here? Ask him how he got in!”
Carroll didn’t look at me as they loaded him into the back of the cruiser. I watched the police car turn around in the parking lot, and kept watching as it turned onto the street and disappeared over the rise.
When I turned to go back inside I saw Carroll, standing barefoot in the living room.
“I came because you let me,” he said.
“You let me in.”
Deb Moore‘s work has appeared in AY Magazine, Harvest, Nebo, Mundane Jane, Nuclear Fiction, Recession Fabulous, The ATU Writer, and Tales of the South, in addition to contributions to titles from the lifestyle and instructional publisher, Leisure Arts. She teaches writing at the University of Central Arkansas.