Sleep Junk

Olivia Alger

     I sleep good at hotels, and sitting alone at the table I daydream of somebody coming to revive me with a handful of water. When I sleep like this I see things funny, like I’ve just woken up from a fever nap with my mascara still on, and my surroundings are hot pink through my gummy eyelashes. I’m only here to catch the news (I don’t have cable) because there’s been a tragedy, but you aren’t allowed in the continental breakfast room with a TV without paying for your sleep. This is the eleventh night I’ve slept here this summer, at the cheap hotel a few miles east. The eleventh morning I’ve woken up here, in the dark blue quiet of a room with the comforter bunched around me, well rested and disoriented.

     Harold is letting people back into the breakfast room who haven’t slept here, people driving by who’ve pulled over to watch the news. This morning at four I was woken up by the rain and two hours later it’s still raining, the damp morning light giving the wallpaper a minty wash. We’re all pulled close around the TV, drinking up the channel. On the screen a man with dreadlocks is crying. I sip my styrofoam cup of coffee carefully. People have left the breakfast spread untouched for the hotel guests, who sit at individual waxy tables.

     Harold comes in from the front desk and stands on the threshold. He’s got a round, blank face like a loaf of bread and a clean little mouth. Last time I stayed, two weeks ago, I checked in very late and his bleary eyes glittered darkly when he spoke. My ex-wife is named Grace, too, he’d said. She was very smart. Smelled very good. Very much out of my league. Maybe I shouldn’t have left her. He slid my keycard across the countertop and laughed shortly, sniffed. The elevator’s jammed, so you might wanna use the stairs to your left.

      The man on TV is still crying. Earlier I was crying too, while washing my feet in the plastic tub in my underwear because all tragedies are beginning to feel the same. Always people clenching down in their strange homes, changing from the late show to the news programming to hear about the kid that could’ve been any of us or any of our kids but wasn’t. Sometimes I worry I’m becoming the kind of person who won’t change the channel anymore. The kind of person who needs to be in a hotel surrounded by the nervous energy of others to even pay attention to the channel, to a world full of kids like us but to a world that isn’t ours to claim.

     I’m sitting next to the windows facing the indoor swimming pool. The panes are getting fogged up with humidity against my back. Lucky’s sitting across the room in a white t-shirt with GET LUCKY printed across the chest. A few moments ago we’d reached for the same pastry and my hand felt watery. The blueberry muffin is on my paper plate now -- he took the bran. He’s sitting with this chin in his flat hand over his untouched muffin, his eyes dry and glassy. Maybe he’s mad at me for taking the blueberry. Or maybe he likes bran. Or, even worse, maybe he’s the kind of person who will settle for bran.

     Harold looks rumpled and lonely. The air’s pink and glossy with breakfast grease and we’re all riddled with anticipation for any updates from the news. I look over at Harold and wonder if he’s had a sleep like this since his divorce. Last time I was here I forgot my toothbrush and came down for one a few hours after he talked about his ex-wife. He moved exhaustedly and told me that she had broken his jaw once. We got into a fight because I broke her radio, he said. He rummaged underneath the counter. I was angry because I couldn’t kiss her for weeks. Nobody’d ever hurt me like that before. You need toothpaste, too?

     Now he looks over the room and nods at me. I nod back. I imagine his jaw hanging loose and exposing his unflossed teeth, listening to the same static loop of a crushed radio as he gingerly presses the hinge of his mouth in the bathroom mirror. “Breakfast’s over in five minutes,” he says, then turns to the TV with his hands clasped behind his back and says nothing when five minutes is over. One of the women standing against the wall has her hands pressed to her face and is watching through her fingers. A commercial comes on for the community college I’ve been taking classes at. Lucky looks at her, then looks at me. I look at the pool, where water sloshes gently in green ripples. The murky scent of chlorine seeps into the carpeting. Lucky gets up, tosses his paper plate and bran muffin into the trash across from my table, still looking at me.

     “Uh -- sorry,” I say. The commercial ends. On the TV they’re showing a picture of the kid who was killed. Drifters float back to their places along the walls like loose plastic.

     “It’s okay,” Lucky said. “I wasn’t hungry, anyway.”

     I smile and unwrap my own muffin. He dips out the doorway and smiles at Harold, who grimaces. Then Lucky claps the threshold with a big flat hand and pulls himself back in. “Hey. You never came to the meeting.”

     “Oh,” I say, brushing baby crumbs from my lap. The woman is now looking at him through her fingers. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t feeling good.”

     “It’s okay. There’s another one tonight. You doing anything? Same place -- the bar I work at. Always a big turnout. It’s inspiring, really. I think you’d love the experience.”

     “I don’t know if I can make it,” I say. “I’m pretty busy.”

     “You don’t have to stay for the whole thing. You don’t even have to hold anybody’s hand. Please?”

     I say, “Okay. I’ll try.”

     Lucky smiles, his mouth a wet open cave. “Great. Can’t wait.” He slaps my waxy table. Harold looks at me and shakes his head soberly.

     Last time I stayed here, Lucky had on a green hoodie with a four-leafed clover on the back. I’d slept good then, too, and was feeling flushed. I was eating breakfast alone and Harold came in to toast a plain bagel. I don’t trust that guy, he said to me. Reminds me of my ex-wife’s first husband. Too peachy. Too happy to be divorced from my gorgeous Grace. I hated that guy. You know, as a second husband you can only hope you’ll know her as well as the first did.

     Lucky walked in then and sat down at my table near the pool. Harold grumbled and burned his finger on the toaster, then lumbered back to the front desk with his bagel. Lucky pulled his green hood up and dark hair tufted along the edge. Dark freckles sprayed across the bridge of his nose. My real name is Lucifer, he said to me, but my dad’s mad Christian and nearly dropped dead when he found out what my mom’d done so he shortened it to Lucky. I like both, but if I were a rapper I’d want my name to be “Lucky Devil.”

     Harold had been listening from the front desk and later told me that this hotel is a watering hole for assholes and oddballs and nobody normal in between.

     Lucky was a few years older than me and worked at a bar where he ran AA meetings in the mornings and a positivity club on Thursday nights. Humans for Humanity, he told me. Took me three years to come up with that. Every week they cluster around the dark vinyl booths of his bar and drink ice water while holding hands and promising on little kids’ lives they wouldn’t hurt nobody. They swear off drugs, booze, sugar, synthetic fabrics, cussing, and caffeine. Caffeine is the worst, Lucky said. The worst of all. Worse than crack. I used both, a long time ago, and had a worse time without my coffee. Can you believe that? It’s because I liked coffee. I didn’t like crack. Who likes crack? But coffee? He traced an invisible heart on the waxy tabletop with his fingertip. I loved coffee, and I didn’t know it was hurting me.

     Later I caught Harold crying gently in a tissue behind the front desk. I know that feeling, he’d said when I asked from the entryway. That’s how it was with Grace.

     I don’t know what I’m doing, going to Lucky’s meeting. The hotel is temporary and I never want to move my time there beyond the building itself. The room is mine for one night, and then it’s not. Straightforward. I pass through the hotel like tragedy has begun to pass through me. Aside from Harold, a sad man as simple as a glass of skim milk, sometimes I think I could be the last person alive in that hotel. The last person in the whole wide world. You can’t get that sacred feeling anywhere else. It could be me and Harold and the tragic kid on the news, the one that could’ve been any of us but wasn’t, left in the world that doesn’t belong to any of us. But still, when afternoon comes I find myself checking out with Harold. I leave him a crumpled five dollar bill and a hard strawberry candy wrapped in cellophane. My car feels like an unfamiliar desert. I chase a shimmering mirage down to the grocery store.

     I had bought Lucky some ice for the ice water and when I wake up hours later it’s slopped over against my bare thigh, a plastic bag of slush cold on my skin. My head is bent against the window and someone is tapping on the plexiglass. Grogginess holds onto my eyelids like hot Vaseline. We’re closing, one of the grocery boys is saying, gesturing in front of me. Sound is muffled. Wake up and get out. I unfold and he goes away to his own car. It’s stopped raining, and the humidity presses in and bakes me into a puddle. My upholstered seats are flattened with sweat and melted ice. My cheeks are damp wads of bubblegum.

     I don’t remember falling asleep, but sleep’s always had a way of pulling me in and swallowing me whole unknowingly. Disoriented, I open my door and slide out slowly. It’s dark out and my limbs are dripping. Lucky had scrawled the address on one of those little breakfast napkins and it’s still balled up in my hand, the bag of cold water in the other. His meeting had started twenty minutes ago. I try remembering how long I’d been asleep but my insides feel molten. I can almost feel them shift when I move.

     During my last stay, two weeks ago, Harold told me once his ex-wife left their baby girl in the backseat. When they found her hours later she was all pink and wrinkled, breathing in slow knots. Harold gave her a cold bath in the kitchen sink while his wife smoked a cigarette on the tiled floor and cried, rocking back and forth. Harold wrapped the baby in damp washcloths and smoothed her fine little hairs over her round little head. She’s good now, he assured me. More than good. Up in college. Doesn’t like the heat, though.  I wonder if she felt this good after falling asleep in the crook of a warm car. The nape of my neck is damp. I adjust my headband. I imagine Lucky’s booth swamped with cleanly shaven men, smiling big at me. I imagine Lucky himself as I keep moving and the night keeps draping me in a thick coating. I reach the bar and walk up to the window. I don’t go inside. Because looking through the glass, I see the dark vinyl booths are completely empty, and Lucky is sitting in a corner with his elbows on the table, alone and looking down hopelessly at a cup of coffee in front of him.


OLIVIA ALGER is a third year senior creative writing major at Interlochen Arts Academy. She’s from the Chicago area, but has lived in Wisconsin and Minnesota, as well. She has received two Gold Keys, six Silver Keys, one Honorable Mention, and an American Voices nomination from the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Her work has appeared in eight journals, including Glass Kite Anthology, The Contour, Polyphony H.S., Noisy Island, and Teenage Wasteland. She was a YoungArts Finalist in Short Story, an American participant in Between the Lines at the International Writing Program, and a 2016 member of the Adroit Mentorship Program. This piece was a finalist in the Adroit Prize for Prose competition.