The 5 Up and the 5 Down


I am in a new town so I am on new transit. For job training I have to go to up and up to the north end of Minneapolis so I am riding the 5 up and the 5 down. It is early and chilly and dry here. September is ending and everyone is huddled tight and small into jackets. When I left without one I doubled back so I could slink into it too.

The 5 stop is a few blocks down, on an intersection of two large streets. Where I am couchsurfing there are a lot of Somalian stores just on the near corner, and on the far corner where that street ends there is a hip record store called The Electric Fetus; in between all that there is a Wendy’s. About mid-way through the walk there is an overpass that looks through a rusted iron fence at the Minneapolis skyline. The buildings are tall and wide and glassy, mostly new but for some odd eggs like the Foshay. The sky is very wide and very open. The wide and blue of it is caught and pushed out a second time by the reflective skyscrapers so that looking at the cars all pour seamlessly inward feels like slipping into an undertow. It stops me for a minute and I let myself fall in and get washed around in the noise and the scenery.

It strikes me walking down the sidewalk that everyone here is unfamiliar, but it starts to matter less after each new city. At first it seems strange and indecipherable to be in a new brand of hectic city but after a while the elements bleed together. Nothing is so like Beijing or D.C. but nothing is so unlike them either. That feels very refreshing to me – akin to relapsing into a Jones soda or catching up with a friend from a while ago; familiar and unfamiliar. It scares me to imagine rural living because I don’t even have a frame of reference – wholly unfamiliar.

There are only a few people waiting at the same 5 stop as I am and even fewer that I can remember the look and bearing of. It takes a little while for the bus to get there, but it does and the man in front lets me know, friendly and folksy, where to swipe the bus pass I am borrowing. I am not feeling fine and out enough to reflect that energy well.

The first leg of the trip is through the city proper, us going underneath big buildings and near large malls. People really come and go around here. Once we clear into the north that’s when people quit their coming and going for settling and sitting. North Minneapolis has its troubles from what I am told and I believe all that, but in the daytime it does not matter so much. Walking to a specific destination down a big street during the day isn’t asking for trouble or anything else. It is odd to me that people feel keenly otherwise – imagining maybe rioting streets or lawless gang rule – but my worries over rural areas are as irrational – imagining horror movie sequences and serial killers. It is just difficult to get a frame of reference – planted wholly in the familiar.

As we get out of downtown and more towards the near north a woman gets on and starts to talk on the phone with some kind of legal counsel. It becomes clear she is prosecuting a case against someone as she reads out a list of charges in a perfectly flat and casual voice. It is hard not to eavesdrop because of how her casual and informal flow grinds against the seriousness of the various charges. After a while, overhearing her just becomes hearing her and it starts to feel zen to listen to the manifold charges wind out calmly – almost in procedure. I feel less worried; that might be a backwards response. I figure you could read her words backwards or forwards but what you should do was not read them at all and let them just be hers. It was already too late for me, and now it is too late for you too.

When I get off the 5 I actually missed my stop by a bit and pulled the wire before we had even reached a cross street. The bus driver stops right away anyways and I get back headed the right way. Coincidentally the right way has a cool look and a load of interesting stores – including what I think was a gas station painted entirely over with this somewhat abstract mural that my mind grasps more for the colors and swirls than the shapes and substance. I think there might be a Wendy’s up here too – in between everything else.

 

On the way back down the bus is at first empty of any other passengers. I am feeling fine and out enough to squeeze a small conversation from quiet bus driver while we figure out if my transit card has enough money on it. A really trendy and smartly dressed young woman comes on and graciously waits for me to sort myself out. For a while there is barely anyone on the bus but as we near downtown, it gets more crowded. A pretty drunk or just bizarrely enthusiastic and loud man swaggers on board and instantly tries to befriend the quiet bus driver. After a minimal interaction he declares success, screaming, “This is my man! This is my brother!” about the bus driver to the rest of the bus. He eventually saunters over to the middle of the bus and his thoughts spill audibly out – about half the full portion of his head tumbling out in accidental volume spikes. When another man comes on and is taking his time to pay at the front, the (presumably) drunk man offers to cover the charge. The whole bus, he declares, is family. The man paying upfront, maybe not feeling like family or too much like family, refuses the drunk man’s help once, then twice, and then sternly. The drunk man returns to his seat but he still holds on to the family point for a bit.

In what feels like just an instant we get downtown and people pour the bus back up to full. A girl who sounds about high school age sitting behind me. A bit later another man comes onto the bus and makes some kind of loud noise for some reason – I had stopped paying attention. I had stopped paying attention at a bad time because the girl behind me says, “damn son!” so loudly and resolutely and naturally that a good chunk of the bus chuckles; a middle aged woman even giggles herself into tears. She laughs and laughs, gearing up so much that a second wind sweeps over me and the rest of the bus and we all laugh and chuckle and smile again.

“Oh thank you.” She says to the girl, “I needed that.” Afterwards the laughing woman reassures the man too, “we are laughing with you not at you.” Being a good sport about the whole thing, he agrees that it was pretty funny. I still don’t know if it was pretty funny, or if it was even a comedy at all, but it might have been better that way.

A few stops down the line another girl who knew the first one comes in and they both settle quickly into a conversation. The one tells the other how she got the bus to laugh – seeming as surprised by the whole thing as I was – and the other tells the one how she just got done with a fight.

“Well, you look pretty good for just getting out of a fight.”

“Yeah she didn’t even have time to hit me.”

It all feels very nonchalant, but energetic and excited at the brims and edges.

They both sound pretty young, but I don’t really know how young they are. They go on for a bit back and forth about how some neighborhood folk gave the second girl’s pregnant sister some trouble. The first girl notes how that should be out of line while an old woman in a pink overcoat, with thick black sunglasses sits down next to me. She smells faintly like cigarettes in a surprisingly pleasant way and we both make eye contact and smile at each other for a moment. This woman is the stereotypical picture of the urban old woman – covered in fuzzy pink, clutching a cane and a plastic bag, big hat and big glasses that leave only her little grin showing – but I don’t really know how old she is.

Not long after that the drunk man stumbles off the bus angered and with others around him encouraging him to get gone. In a little bit I’ll leave too and so I get up and stand by the exit door. A man gives me a hello so warm that you’d think we knew each other. He thinks we do; he asks if we had talked to each other earlier and I say no, because we haven’t. When we get off he wraps an arm around my shoulders and tells me that he’s a homeless vet named Lorenzo and ask for three dollars for a bite to eat and I say I used up the last of my cash on the bus fare, because I had. His lips knit into a tight and small frown and his arm falls limply off of me. I apologize and wish him good luck before slipping off, away from the bus stop.

Public transit can be one of the most interesting sights in a city but also one of the most dull. The lottery of it is as much part of the city character as anything. Flitting moments of realities far outside of all my self-obsession drift into orbit for a second. It draws me out like a spectacle but it isn’t one. The moments are not mine and so I don’t have to chase them down for completion or explanation or plainly owe them or have them owe me anything at all. The moments apply like a texture on top of the smooth, simple, scheduled rhythm of city transit and blend in with the other sensory memories on top of other buses and subways and characters of other cities until it is all this familiar and unfamiliar thing I feel like I’ve seen and never seen.

Pointless Stories: Reflections


I have never lived in a rainy city before, but now I am in a rainy province. So far it is mostly drizzly and each time I go out I am not much inconvenienced. It is deceptive, where if you disregard it the water really builds on your skin and then you are flooded.

I like to go out for a walk every day if I can because my apartment is all white plaster walls and white tile floors and it is a claustrophobic aesthetic that starts off empty and ends up dirty. There are art posters and all sorts of picture frames in my home though, because I had already known of China’s odd love of pale patterns. I’ve flecked it with color for a homier vibe.

Usually when I go out it’s not very far because for whatever complaints I have of it, my home has all my routines and my business inside of it. It is warm and has everything I need. That’s probably something worth mentioning too. When I go out on one of my evening strolls it is often to scavenge for a supplement to dinner, or some kind of thing I need for teaching or living, or both. During the weekend going out’s a bit more pointed. The school’s cafeteria closes down and there’s no work tomorrow so that’s when the long journeys into town for food, drink, and company happen.

Last routine weekday step-out I had bought a mop and a trash bin with a pop-up lid. Well, I think that was the last time I stepped out – actually reflecting on it the last time might have been when I went to KFC. I specifically wanted to order an intriguingly odd looking hamburger meal that came with what looked like a giant strawberry red pizza roll and some sort of hot drink. The pizza roll was actually a super sweet kind of jelly pie thing that tasted better than the burger. The burger itself had a layer of dried noodles on top of it and loads of sloppy applied sweet mayo. The hot drink was corn juice, which I guarantee tastes exactly the way you imagine it.

Anyways, the events blend. I can’t really remember the sequence, but there are a lot of small discrete motions that stick out from the continuous motion. The pity I had for the trash can I was buying sticks out like a wave in the humming sea of consistent motion. That trash bin had cost a surprising amount and I bought it explicitly as a used a toilet paper container. This was a premium trash can – I am telling you – and it must feel like it got a raw deal literally pocketing what my body wouldn’t! Its stainless steel exterior shines underneath the dim lightbulb in my bathroom right now and I still feel the pity I had for it the day of purchase. “Hey, sorry,” I’ve maybe even said aloud, “but you were the only thing with a lid, and honestly you are doing a swell job keeping the smell in.”

I am getting off track. In Changzhou it rains a lot and there a lot of reflective surfaces. This is probably my favorite thing about the city. The reflective tiles of the sidewalks are mostly that strange kind of grey with different tones and shades inside it, with some different colors patterned in here and there. All in between the grey there’re are thin lines of deep black tiles containing the smoothest reflections and in them I can see the glimpse of the grey and black Midwestern skyline designs of Chicago. When the rain really falls it is easy to get caught up in the city and its reflections. Sometimes when the night sky is really clear the outlines of the buildings become stark underneath the wide open. Then the rigid design of this rain slicked little city expands and if my eyes spiral inward, they are plain caught to it and beholden for a little while. Each upright slab sits equidistant from its neighboring building, and if the neighbors are a part of the same apartment complex then they’ll have the same facades too. The angles are equal and the balconies jut out in sequence like the arms of swimmers popping up from under drizzly rain curtains. For a while I was catching single swimmers out and watching their simple motions but with that kind of approach I was missing the way the whole show comes together.

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This last night I went out the sky was not too clear, I think, but even on the smoggy evenings all that’s up comes back down in reflections. The rain was going in the same light drizzle it has had for the last few weeks and all along the ground there was the slick veneer of water on smooth surfaces sticking face up and looking. What they saw is marked right there in the rain pooling on top of them and for some time I’d just stare at my feet stepping over puddles and catch a single heavy and stout piece of skyline quivering porous underneath me. After a while treading the same paths there were certain moments where I found that reflections convened with the images gazing into the watery mirror, like reality doubling up. It was probably a good number of patterned walks ago when I noticed how this long stretch of wide tile cut down the middle by three green reflecting pools ran up to a reflection that always catches me now. It comes along through this little back road a friend taught me to take to that is a bunch of passages that lead to a circular plaza where old ladies like to form up and do square or pair dances. The passage that leaks out to a main road goes on for a bit and about midway through its distance the flat, tall, and wide face of a white building with thin veins of multi-colored neon lights reaches out at first only in reflective rainwater pools. It pulls at my feet and as I follow it the long white thing slinks into a normal shape while the base of its reflection joins to reality and points straight up at the sky. The building and its mirror image both sit blinking multi-colored, probably wondering why I eyed them up top to base to base to top. If I was untoward to the tile and the concrete, I apologize.

On the main road all the reflections are still there and sometimes even clearer in they way they form buildings up into massive straight lines, all standing at attention in perfect rows that shoot to the sky and into the Earth. Wherever I go, KFC, Burger King, a restaurant, it is bright and warm and the servers somewhat know me. In each place I mostly want silence or to talk with a friend in English, but I’ll try to order and do the necessary interactions in Chinese. People will likely watch me eat and at this point I don’t even notice peering eyes much anymore. The days reflect each other like this. An experience at one nearby place reconstructs down from its top to its base to the base of another nearby place to that other place’s top. It is why it is so hard to pull the days apart and I stick to memorizing the things that send a brief ripple through the puddles over the steady fall of rain.

There’s no absence of those kind of ripples. Once I was deeply curious about the old ladies dancing in the plaza an how long they want on for, so I joined in on the whole duration. It was really long, maybe an hour and a half of aerobics set to Chinese “Cha-Cha Slide”-esque music. By the middle I was into it and by the end I was exhausted. “Are you tired?” asked an old man in Mandarin. “Very tired.” I replied back.

Another time maybe two or so weeks back I met a college age girl who spoke great English – or rather she met me. I had sat down at Burger King and she came over to me with such a genuine zeal I couldn’t let it go un-reflected, even though I wasn’t looking for a conversation. She had a very warm and low-lit buzz about her, like the café lighting of the Burger King (US brand fast food joints have nicer design in China). Apparently she had a foreign teacher at her university but had never found one roaming in the wild, feasting on its very own imported native fruits. She was in some kind of business management end of the textile industry and was thinking of going abroad so she plied me with fairly deep questions about how living away from home feels. I kind of liked that because it was unlike the average conversation where I’d say for the tenth time where I was from, what my work was, how much I was paid, and how long I had been here. In the end she got my WeChat (a poplar messaging app) and we sped off to separate places. I haven’t heard from her since, but that’s normal and it does not make me sad anymore. I don’t think it is just because I expect it, but because now that I have seen the first be the last so many times, I don’t think the lack of a sequence colors the one-time-things any worse.

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Then I’d go back home. Sometimes some drivers mulling about by their parked cars will stop me and talk for a while. They have some pretty fun banter and seem eager for me to find a girlfriend. Just this last time I stopped for a coke at a nearby convenience store and chatted with a middle aged couple who run the place. They have a black and white cat patterned so it has a thick mustache. I had met it before when it was a lot smaller, but it remembered me when I took my hood off and started playing with my hand like it had before. I spent a bit spinning my headphones around for it to paw at while I pet it, so of course the owners and I talked about cats and the pets I had back home. Then I waded back in through the crowd of parents looking to pick up kids and exchanged quick hellos with the gate guards.

Past the gate and in the courtyard there’s this massive, red, abstract star. When it rains water pools around its circular base and the star shines once up and once down at every angle. Then there’s a brief walk where the school buildings rise up to each side and things feel a bit more cluttered before everything falls to wide and open as the basketball courts come in on the right and the student cafeteria on the left. The basketball court’s a solid green surface that extends all the way to far outer wall of the school. Not too far off, there’s an apartment complex of similarly styled beige buildings with jutting strips. They stretch down and leak into the reflecting green surfaces of the basketball courts until the top of the reflections feel in reach and the summit of their tangible bodies feel out of touch.

Finally there’s the last few strides home. The dormitories are way in the back of the campus and they sharply cut off the wide open plain made by the expansive basketball courts. They are flat but for iron frames outside of windows where kids hang sheets and clothes. Two of them squeeze right up close to each other, maybe only fifteen feet apart, and fence off the teachers’ apartments where I live. Each building is about four or five stories and they make a thin mountain pass that the plains filter into – a dark little channel covered up top by a tin roof. Looming right behind them are the apartment complexes that reach up at least twenty floors, speckled on each level with intermittent light. Straight forward the road is gravelly and crooked, creating for imperfect reflections. The dorms and apartments lean into the water on the ground but rugged and rickety terrain turn their blocky bodies splotchy. As I near the pass the apartment complexes lean in closer, breathing over the neck of the dorms. The peaks of mountain ranges mark the instant end of the reflective plains as the darkness of the pass swallows me up and the pitter patter of rain drops clapping cold tin blend seamlessly with the hushed murmurs of students and the distant drone of cars. When I step out of the pass, the dorms circle up behind me and the humble hill of my apartment complex sits just beneath the twenty-something story apartment building and the speckled lights that it thrusts upward into the starless night sky.

It took me a while to realize it but much of the campus is designed to keep people out of the rain, with tin roofed corridors nearly always connection to overhangs and tunnels. There are corridors of wavy tin roofs that cover lanes leading to the area around my apartment – which has stone ping-pong tables, a parking area, and a small building for holding trash. I can rarely smell the garbage but it draws in all sorts of noise and excitement. In the nights the wild cats of the campus sustain themselves off this garbage and argue over it fiercely and in the mornings Chinese people also argue at least around it but for reasons I can’t discern. When I hear the cats I laugh, but when I hear the heated Mandarin something in me gets a bit angry too and I am not sure why.

Crossing past the garbage there are parked scooters and cars lined up neatly before the wall of the campus. At first it startled me to see security cameras and sharp glass shards lining the top of the wall near our apartments. Now I don’t even catch their reflections. I suppose that’s the sign of a good security measure – present to outsiders and subtle to insiders. It is interesting though,, that once I get close enough to see those glass shards I can also almost glimpse into that high-rise community sitting right behind me and looking straight over.

When I step into the narrow space that leads up to the door I can hear the sound of rain hitting tin now overwhelming everything. For a bit I listen for the scraping sound of dirt falling off my shoes and onto my red, improper English adorned doormat. Opening the door, the fluorescent lights are already bounding out off of white surfaces to greet me. Inside the blank sea swallows up everything and I am almost sleepy underneath the fluorescent lighting, the warm air, and the vibrating hum of the heater producing it.

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~Austin R Ryan

Pointless Stories: Running


I go out running every other day or so. After a while all of the runs blend together into one stream of pounding feet and burning air. I often run the same routes at around the same time on the same days a fixture. My body anticipates the release of energy.

In each thirty minute bouts a lot can happen and a lot can go unnoticed beneath the drone of sneakers smacking the concrete. Sometimes the sun shines so brightly and the wind does not show up at all. The heat dries out and creases cracks across my lips. The sweat works overtime and comes in smearing lines from top until it leaks to the bottom. On the hottest days it even seeps into the socks. The run becomes longing for the next stretch of shade. Sometimes a penetrating pain roars across one of my sides and I’d like to slow down. When my mind is pliable and my body insistent enough, I do.

There are those few days when it feels like the stare of slick sunrays is a sickness I am fighting. In those stretches I become obstinate. I don’t want to give an inch to the angry weather. The running form I had half learned across several semesters running cross country full unravels. It is raw, repetitive violent movement between me and the ugly muscle cramps the heat brought along. A cramp can feel like so many things. It can gnaw on the side like a wolf deep into the shank of a lamb or it can punch like an embittered rival pushed over an edge. It can even stab with the vigor of a fencer, precise and sharp where each tack lands. There’s no beating it fully. I can only transfer it to the track below and pound out a quicker path.

Running can chew through your deodorant and ruin your scent. It can cut your breath into bursts and kill your sound. It can shake your stomping legs, scrunch up your arms, and bend your back until your stature falls too. Running can make you ugly, but there are days where it is beautiful too.

On the right day, the wind blows merciful and the sun doesn’t outshine the shade. Strides become longer than usual, feet feel lighter than usual. Drips of sweat cool the skin in small doses, and gentle rushes of wind peel back the harder layers of the heat. On those days, I could look up in the sky and not mind my feet at all. I could keep eyes on the treetops and watch sturdy oaks tremble at the extremities. I could absorb the full blue sky and feel like I was swimming through a sea of air. I’d say hello to every neighbor and smile at all the dogs they were walking.

I wonder if it is those days I run for. In the back of my mind a voice tells me I won’t live longer for sucking in sick city air and bashing my ankles up against grey concrete. That voice speaks in harsh whispers of my budding addiction to the beta endorphins spinning across synapses. When I run it’s the sound that twists my daydreams into demons hounding at my heels. And when those words really set in I wonder if I run to dodge those demons. I wonder if I am running to be a better coward.

I don’t think it is as much as that, though it can feel like it is even more. It can feel like each step is over a threshold. When the whole wide sky stares down and bleeds ugly heat into my skin, I’d think it was a forge refining the iron inside me. So many dreams of dramatic action sparkle inside my skull and I’d swear there wasn’t a person in front of or behind me at all. Everything had faded and I finally fought myself into being the person I ought to be. The glowing image of some forgotten glory I could reclaim blasted in the back of my mind. When all that happens I wonder if I am chasing and lusting madly for something. I wonder if I am running to be a better person.

All that droning noise can drown out a lot of what happens in those thirty minute bouts. In all the wondering it is easy to miss the slick and neat trim of my shoelaces gliding along the edge of my fingers as I pull the shoe to fit my foot tight. The burning sensation of stretching hamstrings, calves, and quadriceps can fly under the radar. So goes the scratchy inhales and exhales of all sorts of air from the free and clean to the gaseous exhaust exiting cigarettes and tailpipes.

There’s a deep and resounding language in all that physical motion. Give your breath enough attention and you can catch blood cells oxidizing every step. Tuning into each step, it becomes clear how well your form fits your body and your shoes fit your feet. Falling completely into the sound around you reveals the power of the uptempo in your music, and the draw of the downtempo of city streets and sleepy neighborhoods. When I lean into every breath, step, and sound of a run, I don’t think I am running for the language in my head. When I am running, I don’t think the pontificating means much at all.

~Austin R Ryan

Pointless Stories: Whispers


Did you miss me? Well, I haven’t been gone for long and I have got places to go so listen in for a few whispers I have of my spooky old home. It’s short, I promise not to keep you too busy.

I grew up in an old house that speaks in creaks. It whistles little secrets through air vents and tells tall tales in drafts. Every time I go away, I drift far off and forget about the whispers of an old home. When inevitably I return, the noise always catches me off guard.

Underneath the dim glow of the living room and the kitchen addition, the ceiling fan shakes at its base so hard that it clicks at me. The bathroom has an AC fan and it hums heavenly. Five years old, I stumbled down our rickety stairs. Half the steps are sturdy underneath the press of pounding children. They don’t complain much. The other half groan with a love for the melodrama of their lives, spread on longer than any of their residents’. It is dawn, maybe 5 AM. Young and up too early, it feels like a dream but I’d always swear it wasn’t. A voice radiates from the corner of the living room. At that time the ceiling fan did not shake so hard. I chase it down out of a half awakened hunger. It seeps out from the almost closed bathroom door, the sonority of sweet hums layer over the AC units breathing at my back. In the silence between falling beats, the wood planks creak. “Mom?” I ask the voice to identify itself, but it just keeps humming. Our family is so tone deaf, even at five years old I found it hard to believe it was one of us. “Mom?” I ask again half in disbelief. I pull open the bathroom door, nothing’s there and the voice is no more. Just evidence of how an old home never empties.

The memory entered in through my ears in whispers. I stayed up late that night not minding the slight sound one bit. The groans of old homes have the stuff of half formed urban legends told by anxious kids. Little bits of lore form up in the etchings on walls, words leftover from former tenants. It’s a narrative waiting to be made. Boy, did we make something of it.

My mother tells us – when the topic of ghosts are broached – that when she and my father thought to move, the house made quite a racket. Cupboards closed hard on their own, doors slid shut without a nudge. My second sister and I grew up afraid of the dark. She said once that a little girl popped up and looked at her when she was in the bathtub. When none of my sisters owned up to it, she refused to take baths alone for a while. On my end, I just had a rash of nightmares, saw strange shapes in trees and turned the formless noise of those whispers into something sinister. I had a dream once where a little girl who looked similar to what my sister described, forebodingly demanded I go up to the addict with her. Both of us thought she looked like my youngest sister, if we had seen the same girl at all.

Once two wild wiccans came to our home and said they sensed a spiritual energy. They whipped out a Ouija board and asked to phone home. My sisters obliged, finding something funny in the odd fancy. I would too. The wiccans felt a foul energy on that board and fled. Depending on who you talk to, the Ouija is an ancient occult board game gateway to the ethereal or a cheap piece of wood given a ghostly narrative to spook up sales. Either way, we still recall the odd incident and laugh about it.

When my friends would head over I’d unleash all the stories I collected over the years. It was a means of bonding them to me and my home while adding a luster to this slice of Middle America. Sometimes I did it just because I loved the paranormal. We used to have this old pullout couch crammed tight with a terrible mattress. When I was small enough to fit in its unfolded cracks, I’d climb under with my childhood friends, cover the entrances with a blanket, flick on the flashlight and read something from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. The pictures in those books looked too surreal and wild to be for children, which was why I loved them. Friends, relations, and in-laws that visit say they feel something off, but everyone admits it may just be that we’ve given these whispers a booming voice with all our stories. Who knows?

When I got older I wanted to know. I have always been a night owl. I like the quiet when everything but the house and I have retired. In the dead of the night I’d feel cold sensations sit on the small of my back and spread up across the shoulders like the sweeping of hands and I always wondered if it was just the draft. When I went on the internet for answers the search results were inconclusive. Paranormal forums and boards had plenty of stories but not so much insight.

Years later in college I would sleep in brand new dorms and apartment buildings low on cracks, creaks, and speeches filled with the wisdom of age. At first I did not sleep as sound, but maybe that was just because I was settling in. I felt alone for a few months. Sophomore year was not so bad, save some episodes of sleep paralysis after some between-class cat naps.

When I returned home around Sophomore year the house was full with the components of our growing family, the husbands of sisters. As the youngest people make so much of how you grow, but time seems to work faster for your elders. I was back in the tiny room I had slept in as a kid. In those days I did not get along with that room. The feud went on for longer than I like to admit, pushing me at first to sleep with my parents and then with the couch and TV downstairs. What riled me up, I think, was how small it was (no bigger than a garden shed) and how far down the hall it was (all the way the opposite to my parents and the bathroom).

I had revisited the room a few times before Sophomore year, but not often and not when I had the choice. Bygones had gone by, but I still preferred something more spacious. The night I returned to the room had been cold and I came to bed as late as 3 or 4 AM. I pulled the full set of sheets all the way over my head, balled up, and fell into deep sleep. An hour or two later, heat punctured my whole body and made me shove off the blankets. Then came a burst of icy feeling bubbling in my center and pushing out toward extremities. The heat shot back again as soon as I grabbed for the blankets. The hushed murmur of voices entered through the slight opening of my door. Thinking them to be from family up early, I rolled over and did my best to get back to sleep. Then the murmuring grew louder and louder, voicing in the tones of people I did not know. The whispers packed themselves in denser and denser, each word scrambling faster as time wore on until the air around me felt crowded with conversation I did not opt in to. It burst my tired eyes open and I flew back to the couch in the living room without much hesitation.

I have come back to that room plenty of times when the house got crowded. Ever since then I have hardly heard a peep, at least nothing past the usual hemming and hawing of the old abode. Truth be told, the room I count as my own is much noisier. Various woodland creatures have set up shop inside the walls and some nights they scratch like crazy until you smack a surface and tell them to stop. It drove my second sister out of the room once, but I mostly find the animals funny. In the room across from mine, there’s always a bird nest right next to the window-installed air condition unit. Ours is a home for more than humans and their ghosts.

This time I have moved back in, though again not for long before I am off to a foreign shore. I am back after bidding goodbye to my college life and looking on to see what’s next. By now, I have come to love the little whispers of my old home. I settle in at night, later than I should be up, and I hear the familiar history of this place. The same floorboards greet my feat even as I try to step softly. The same steps crunch and crackle at my approach. Cars whizzing by our dark neighborhood pull apart the night air outside. Sometimes I even think I hear a voice. As I strain to catch it, it slips my grasp like an auditory sleight of hand. It was probably never there, but I don’t mind wondering.

When I go to bed with my fan and my TV blasting white noise, these little whispers comfort me. Sometimes they bring me back to the narrative I have always treasured. Other times they assuage the kind of loneliness that even seeing friends and family can’t resolve. Mostly they remind me that – transitory as things are – they don’t disappear, they just fade.

Thanks for listening in, and sleep tight.

~Austin R Ryan

Pointless Stories: Sleep in Winter Part 2


My dreams were not kind, though and I knew even subconsciously that I had a class to attend not so long from now with no alarm to save me. I ran through cycles of panic and half sleep. My subconscious offered me the sweet illusion of the personal responsibility I lacked. I dreamt that I would wake up and stare at the clock just in time. Even in my dreams, I did not delve far into the illusion, as my limbs would feel so weighted that I could not exit my bed, and I slunk back into heavy sleep. I dreamt of people entering and leaving my room, demonstrating all sorts of strange behaviors toward me. For my part, I felt too heavy to respond. I fell into a form of sleep paralysis where my body awakened and tensed all over. My eyelids felt heavy. The lines of my vision blurred. Clarity etched its way into my cornea here and there. I would have shut my eyes but the fluctuation between obfuscation and lucidity felt too interesting. Hallucinations of friends and acquaintances started to float about the room, conducting strange conversations that I could not properly recall. I could recognize that I was hallucinating. I had to pry my eyes open and watch reality mesh incongruously with this odd display of fiction fitted perfectly to my mind by a rebellious subconscious. The hallucinations started to scratch at some very old sores of mine. I grew uncomfortable with the stillness that radiated throughout my body. That stillness felt impure and ugly. It felt complacent. Waves of old buried dirt splashed against my mind, and my body hardly even let me see. I felt perfectly still in a very thick way.

I decided I needed to break this up with reason and reminded my mind that I was still not fully conscious. I told my brain to get back in shape and get the body moving. It took a massive effort. It felt like opening a bottle of wine. I slowly churned the action around the base of my spine until the tingling sensation of opening outward spread down my shoulders. My eyes shot fully open for the first time in what felt like hours. I sat up quickly. Only a good fifteen minutes passed. Twenty minutes sat between my next class and I. Ironically, I felt exhausted and let myself fall asleep again. Luckily my internal clock shot me up properly this time, and I woke up resoundingly ten minutes later, giving me the perfect amount of time to gather my things and get to class. I sat wide eyed in the class glazing over reality, just because it seemed the appropriate thing to do after enduring a bout of sleep paralysis.

I did not really take in much of what anyone said, but that might have been due to the class itself as much as my mentality. I never need strange sleep patterns to justify my boredom in this class. Supposedly the class teaches you how to write. As far as I can tell, it teaches you how to write dried up bits of glossy op-ed pieces that already litter the literary landscape. At best it helps you form up that lifeless academic voice into something a touch more persuasive. I made a few remarks mainly to make my voice heard and seem as though I were thinking actively. I felt underwhelmed at how they hit the class. I don’t know what I expected. I don’t know why I would think anyone would listen closer to me than I listened to them, especially in a class we were all being forced to take. I made a childish determination to feel upset about it and slinked back into my own indulgent and continual self-analysis. Later I’d slap myself mentally for getting so damn uppity and apathetic about the whole thing.

I shuffled out of the class and off to lunch. Still sore from feeling alienated by social interaction, I determined that I would not fall gracefully back into the social scenery. I spent the lunch sitting more silently than normal. I got back to my room with a full stomach and resolve to get out of my pointless funk. Unfortunately, my next class was coming up quick and I could not figure out much to do, so I just sloped up against my bed and let my momentum drain loose.

My girlfriend knocked on the door, getting me up to walk to our shared class, as is our routine. I enjoyed talking with her for a while. I always scrounge for a point when I am with her, though I know I really do not have one. I hardly have anything I want to say that I have not said to her at this point, being friends with her a year before starting up the relationship. Part of the fun was looking for something new to say. I would inspect my life and hers for some question of interest to ask or statement to make. It forced me to look a little closer at things and I enjoyed that element of conversation.
Astronomy class proceeded as normal. Having my girlfriend and a few good buddies in the class speeds things along, and gives me something to do when I get bored. Sometimes I would have to shrug off some interaction to get notes down or finish reading for another class. it did feel a bit rude. Though, that did seem the constant balance of a social life, getting efficiently rude enough to stay unbothered when you needed to without pushing people away.

After astronomy I remember sitting down and doing next to nothing productive. I think I spent a solid two hours browsing the internet uselessly before going out to dinner. After that I did sit down and read for a while until my roommate invited over another good friend and sat down to watch a documentary he told our group about earlier. I guess my own distaste for exclusion due to confusion or lack of effort in people triggered and I started to sort of lightly bitch about how we could get the whole group in if we waited until tomorrow. That was not entirely true, so we did resolve to watch the documentary that night. I still insisted that we try to get as much of the gang in as possible. We wrangled in two more people and had a good time of the viewing.

Watching a documentary on metaphysics of personal careers and reading a heady book about lifeless jobs leaves my head dense and my mouth babbling incessantly to clear some of the clutter. We all talked about dogs and I kept drawing back to my own dog, due to my blundering social incompetence and consistent internal dialogue that often draws me back to putting the conversation’s focus on myself or my own experiences. The group disbanded and I felt quite overburdened with thoughts.

The hot waters of the shower helped me loosen the various strands of crisscrossing thought. I left the shower feeling a bit more at ease. I joined my friends on the floor lounge and played some games for the rest of the night.

 

I rolled around in my bed for a while. It bothered me that I could not go to sleep immediately like I often did. My mind felt clear. I felt clean and living happily off of leisure time I would lack in the future. Something gnawed at me though, otherwise I would not have rolled around for as long as I did. I would not weave my blanket around me in so many different ways if I were not looking for the right way to lie. I could not tell if I felt physically or mentally uncomfortable. Gradually my fatigue seized me and wrapped me in that coveted wave of sleep. I knew the morning bell would yell out at me the same way the next day. I knew each step hardly removed me from that familiar buzz. It would strike again and again, morning after morning after morning. I wondered if that morning bell was what kept me awake at night. I am probably wrong. The throb that keeps me awake most likely stems from something much more difficult and vastly less interesting.

Some sort of study I heard about vaguely from a friend, who probably heard it from another friend who read an article citing a book that made the full argument, claimed that people start to embody fictional characters they really love. People project that fascinating fiction into their life because those lines of print must give you an electrical and wondrous sort of life. But no matter how close to Gandalf you get, you can’t come into work late and say that you’ve arrived just when you were needed. Not a salesman in the world dies like Willy Loman and if I really wanted to get a good night’s sleep I’d medicate myself and stop worrying about the existential. Maybe some of us do whatever it takes to make it all seem like a book filled with pointed pages.

 

~Austin R Ryan

Pointless Stories: Sleep in Winter Part 1


Today I woke up at about 7:50 am. The alarm shattered the silent air with beats that seemed concentric. The beeps sped up the longer the alarm stayed on, as a way to keep you from taking that extra five minutes that soon balloons into a half an hour. I sprung out of bed and quickly made my way to the alarm clock. Whenever I near it in the morning the beeps get faster and faster. Though they respond to time, it feels more like space. With each step I get closer to the core of the concentric circles and the sound grows quicker and harsher. The alarm shrieks faster and faster at me, delivering as much of an oration as it can before I silence it. Sometimes my finger slides right of the smooth black surface of the off button without clicking it. My tired frustration compels me to jam the button until the alarm stops arguing. I have my fill of interaction with people and I do not need my machines piping about their concerns.

My roommate, Peter, wakes up too, probably because his alarm won’t arrive much later, and we both have a class in the morning at the same time. I set my alarm ten minutes earlier than usual to beat a strange shower rush that developed in the mornings just recently. I have tenuous mornings, easy to derail. I move too slowly to feel at ease with any routine I set in the morning. My mind does not function as sharply as like either, so I yield to grumpiness, mostly because I feel inadequate in the pressured mornings. I deeply want to slink back into bed to face the day later, but I know that post-sleep I’ll be deprived of full faculties, regardless of quakes in routine. I gather my shower gear slowly. I did not buy a shower caddy this year because frankly the container store does not deserve twenty dollars for a cheap plastic box with a knobby handle. I know the overhead of perforating a cheap chunk of plastic does not warrant the price. I do miss the convenience of the shower caddy. It sucks to drop your soap or have your shampoo bottle break open while walking to the shower.

I get to showering and worrying about the time in one simultaneous and routine motion. I manage just fine, though. I brush my teeth and floss as well, recently deciding to try and force myself into more hygienic habits as I age. I get my stuff and take the stairs down. The elevator is just a quick so long as it goes straight from 5 to 1, but you cannot trust it. If you are in a hurry it’ll likely stop on all four floors along the way just to make your hubris seem Greek. Not to mention, I do not find repressing the desire to chew out the person using the elevator to transcend a flight of stairs to be a fun exercise in patience. If I am not in a hurry and not in a group then I tend not to care if someone uses the elevator to get up or down a flight of stairs. I would consider doing it myself were I them. When I am in a group I get this feeling of shared outrage that I must join in on to indicate I am fully human and not some sanctimonious Buddhist reminding people that frustration should teach us patience. Instead I revel in that emotional connection I create when another person and I judge a stranger in unison. I do not know either person, but at that moment I feel pretty well connected with both on an emotional level. Most people living on the second floor anticipate your reaction when they take the elevator. They either respond in a flash, with something along the lines of “I am sorry, I am just lazy.” They flash you this nervously jovial smile, knowing that one day one person in too much of a hurry to form restraint might start up a real argument with them. That smile prints them all over with guilt. Or maybe it is just a prankster’s nervousness that makes them invincible to anything but silent disparaging. After all, they chose the forthright path, and throughout the day ninety percent of the people you meet will not choose that path. That must be worth something. Otherwise they just stare straight at the elevator door and pretend they did nothing out of the norm. The lack of confrontation might save them from lectures, but one day I cannot help but think a senior rushing to turn in a thesis will plant a welt right in the back of their head.

I took the stairs though, so none of that would happen privy to my sight. I love the stairs for their consistency. They will not disappoint me. Even with my legs feeling worn, I plod down them at a familiar pace. I step outside and feel the slight cold of an all too warm DC November embrace me.

I always make my way to the dining hall to get a bagel and maybe some bacon in the morning. I walk up through the amphitheater. The amphitheater looks like a giant set of grassy steps leading down to a stage. The university maintains the grass perfectly, and even as winter approaches it glimmers green beneath the morning sunlight. Trees tower over the sides of the amphitheater, and a small creek runs a sneaky path along the left side of the large, leafy steps. You can hear its subterfuge if you listen close.

The trees begin to lose their leaves and to me they looked like they’re burning. An orangish red spreads on the outsides of the leaf until it forces them to fall to the earth. The cold weather spreads a burn across most of the foliage, but the campus remains well raked. The leaves speckle the ground, rather than coat it. We run our large brushes through a thicket of green hair, cut to a fine buzz. We foster the growth of massive barky limbs and let it stretch its legs out to touch the sky. Such is the treatment a national arboretum warrants.

My campus is small, but I basically have to cross the spread of it to get to my destination. We tucked the science building off on the north side, far away from the quadrangle and the bustle of activity around it. Only humanities receive such venerated locales.

I get to my economics class after a dull walk on tired legs. It feels long, but it isn’t. It just happens to be the grayest path to follow. Once I leave the neat green array of the amphitheater and quadrangle, I tread along a river of pavement, with towering slabs of concrete ringing me in on the sides. The spots of green are still there, but the campus on the far north side only receives a trickle of people going to and fro. It feels lonely and quiet compared to the bustle found elsewhere.

My economics class goes fine, though I have trouble focusing. My mind generates a few sharp responses to the basic economic principles, which I scrawl in my notes to ask the teacher about later. I can hardly remember them now, but I do remember our discussions centered on the use of patents and the creation of a complicated patent buyout system that would foster innovation and profits simultaneously. For the most part I agree with the lecture. Usually I find economics slanted at justifying itself. Economics traces out a clear path and I love and hate that about it. History’s splintered over the years, and we can no longer agree even on objectivity. But Economics, that young and brash bastard does not seem to give a shit about dissention at all. Sure, when you dive deep, Economists fight bitterly with one another, but no one’s questioning supply and demand, and they’ll all agree to devise sticky wages and frictional unemployment to support the flaws in their more widely agreed upon theories.

Economics always energizes me, but well after the morning’s passed. Walking back to my dorm, usually I can only focus on the nap I am about to indulge in. Of course as time passes I forget the specifics of economics and I regret not processing it right at that moment. The dilemmas of my morning classes are spending my free afternoons forgetting what I learned. I am dead tired walking back. An acquaintance of mine makes a quick interaction, notes that I am tired and lets me off the hook. Walking back through the amphitheater provides a different perspective. The wide steps lead down now, and I quickly clear past the creek whispering to my left and the wide empty stage. My eyes fix themselves against that large concrete structure of a residence hall I live in. It towers over the amphitheater and towers more and more as I slide down the hill of the amphitheater. Once I get back to the elevators, I find them both ascending to the upper floors. On another day, I might just hike up the five flights and fall on my bed. Today my legs will not allow it. The elevators take quite some time to get to the first floor. Each one stops at three floors, and they arrive nearly at the same time. Another person from my floor hops on the elevator and I remark that the elevators raced to the first floor. When I get back to my room I set my alarm for 11 AM. I intend to limit my nap to a half an hour. Any longer, and they say it only makes you sleepier. Recently I can recall all of my nap dreams.

So I napped and I dreamt about some interpersonal interactions in which I was quite the hero. Of course, the tale of a hero ends tragically, and just as the villain winded up to confront me, the whole world shook. The earth became the sky and the sky became the earth and it all faded beneath a concentric beeping. The rings of sound cascading in faster and faster forced that subconscious world of reverie and oddity to lapse back into reality. I stood up, turned the alarm off and then sat back down on the bed. I promised myself that I could shut my eyes for a second and remain upright. I lied to myself and made a perfectly noiseless transition into sleep. I strode right into my subconscious without even noticing. It all blended well.

 

~Austin R Ryan