The Basement Dwellers
by Thomas Willits
|part 1 of 3|
Ralph Dempsey slowly rose from the sofa while attempting to juggle the remote and keep level his thirty-two ounce jug of iced tea. He placed them both on the coffee table before him and stared at the blank TV screen.
Inside the black box his reflection leered back at him with an expression of utter perplexity. The clock on the wall next to the kitchen proclaimed it was nearly one o’clock in the morning.
He had drifted off again.
This time he had been fortunate not to wake up with a soaked shirt from overturning his mug, for something had startled him awake tonight before that could happen yet another time.
Ralph could doze off like the flick of a switch. Television and reading were the two most lethal enemies of consciousness to Ralph, and now that he was retired and spent most of the day and evenings catching up on books and movies, he found himself really struggling to stay awake. It was more like a disease, if you could call it that. But perhaps it was simply a disorder.
Insomniacs had trouble getting to sleep. Ralph had trouble staying awake. His narcolepsy however, was by no means extreme. He wouldn’t fall asleep while on his feet or during conversation or in the middle of a meal, like some extreme cases that had been reported. His condition was considered mild since he had no problems during the mornings or afternoons. And he wouldn’t nod off unless he was sitting down and reading or watching TV.
There were varying degrees of narcolepsy, and Ralph’s would be considered low and manageable, at least as he’d have everyone believe. As long as he was active he could function quite normally.
But once on the sofa and under the mild light of the end table lamp, there was no fighting it. Most nights he’d make it all the way until morning before he’d wake and find himself confused and disoriented. But usually, within moments of waking, he’d let out the usual curses: “Ah, cripes! I fell asleep again, Margaret!”
Margaret, his wife, would enter and tell him he needed to see Doctor Harper about it, that it was an ensuing problem, and that if he didn’t get help soon he’d be waking up to find himself hurt or something worse... something unimaginable, as she put it.
Ralph told her she was overreacting and that sometimes, no matter how much he tried, he just couldn’t keep his eyes open. He couldn’t really place a time when he’d start to get sleepy. There wasn’t any noticeable pattern to it that he could tell.
Sometimes it was early, during the prime-time movie on CBS or on other nights it was during Late Night With David Letterman. He told Margaret not to worry and that his eyelids were just heavier than most other people’s. He’d laugh cynically at this and then go on about his business.
She tried to get him to go to bed when she caught him nodding off, and there were times when she was successful and he’d obediently head up the stairs. But she couldn’t keep her eyes on him at every moment, and because Ralph’s bouts of sleep induction were so random, she just couldn’t provide him with an adequate defense.
He didn’t like taking medication; that was another reason he refused to see Doctor Harper. He was already taking medication for his arthritis, and it bothered his stomach enough that he did not warrant any additional irritation.
“I’m fine,” he told Margaret. This was two days ago now, just after she mentioned he should see their family physician. “I sleep just as well out here in the living room as I do up in bed. Besides, Doctor Harper will just stick me with another prescription that we’ll have to go fill, and you know how much the arthritis medicine costs. It’s not like we have money coming out our ears. Besides: the pills are giving me an ulcer; that’s what I think.”
“Oh, come on, Margaret. It’s not like I’m sleepwalking or anything. What’s the worst that can happen? I sometimes spill my mug, but no harm done. And I’ve been reading a lot lately. It drains the mind some; wears you out mentally.”
She noticed he had been reading more. Nearly half the day, that she could recall. She gave him a suspicious glance as if she were not sure he was telling the truth. But she had never known Ralph to lie. It wasn’t in his nature to do so. And that was the end of it.
Until Ralph started hearing the voices.
Still confused from his recent arousal from sleep, he glanced over to where Margaret sat on the adjacent love seat but found she was not there. Her yellow, hand-woven yarn gown was neatly strewn over the back. She wore it from time to time when she got the chills, mainly because Ralph preferred to leave the thermostat set on seventy-two degrees — room temperature as Ralph insisted, the accepted standard.
He surveyed the rest of the living room and discovered it empty. She had apparently retired to bed long ago. She rarely stayed up past eleven anymore, and he was quite certain she was in bed.
He rubbed his eyes with weariness and examined his mug. All the ice had melted and there on top was a thin layer of diluted tea. He desired a drink but he wasn’t about to take a swig from this beverage any longer.
A few seconds elapsed before he turned around, surprised. His memory reminded him about what had startled him from sleep. He had heard someone. Margaret, or perhaps the TV. But the TV was off, which ruled that out. Ralph surmised Margaret had turned it off when she went up to bed, as she usually did when he nodded off, which left him curious where the talking had come from.
He had heard talking. He was certain of it.
He strolled into their small eat-in kitchen. The light above the stove was on. They utilized as a night light. It gave off enough ambiance for him to conclude there was no one in here either. He half-expected Margaret to be in here on the phone with her sister, Delilah, but that evidently wasn’t the case.
His ears were as good as they had ever been. His eyes, however were failing every day. He couldn’t read anything without his bifocals, which he always kept in his shirt pocket. He fumbled for the switch next to the entryway and ran his hand up the wall. He poured a fresh glass of water and finished half of it. The other half he poured out, then he set the glass down.
The mind plays funny tricks sometimes. Especially when one is in and out of sleep. Memories that usually would be in the foremost part of the mind temporarily become submerged behind the most necessary needs or wants. If something was really important throughout the day, upon waking it would be virtually forgotten for untold moments.
For most it was natural. In Ralph’s case it may have been more intrusive. As for the cause, no one could say. One might surmise that irregular sleeping habits would act as a catalyst for this. But that might only be part of the reason. Or maybe there was no real reason for it at all, except that sometimes, for some, the memory is the first to go.
Not that Ralph would forget anything for long. He could still recall breaking his arm when he was ten, and if he remembered that then his mind was still like a steel trap like his grandfather used to say. It was merely those waning moments while emerging from that deep chasm called sleep that he was... well, confused.
“Margaret?” he called out just loud enough to hear in this room and maybe the next. He didn’t expect an answer and he received none. Marginally louder, “Margaret?”
This time he was sure she’d be able to hear him, even upstairs in bed. But there was no response. He listened very closely. He could hear every noise in the house, and there were few. Only the real distinguishable sounds were those coming from outside on the street and beyond.
He knew every sound their house made, and when he heard something he knew exactly where and what it was. If a toilet flushed, he knew whether it was the upstairs bathroom or the one on the main floor. He knew which steps creaked on the stairway and in the hallway. If Margaret shut a door somewhere, he knew which one. When there was a ‘clash’ sound coming from the kitchen, Ralph knew it was the ice maker dumping fresh ice into the tray. Or if he was upstairs and he listened real hard, he could tell whether or not the television was on downstairs just by listening for the tube hum.
He knew his house. And he knew his noises. Once you live in a place for awhile you become accustomed to those sounds. Every noise had a source and Ralph knew them all.
Except for this one.
He tried to recall exactly what he had heard, but it wasn’t as if these voices were coherent and speaking directly to him. It was more like a conversation with someone else that he was hearing, or overhearing perhaps. It was like he had unintentionally broken into a conversation right when the two were getting to the really juicy part.
And then all of a sudden the voices had ceased, as if they knew someone was listening. That didn’t exactly worry him — not at first anyway. What did worry him was that he couldn’t explain it. He knew there was a radio upstairs in their bedroom as well as the bathroom. But he had already ruled that possibility out along with the TV.
The radio in the bathroom was battery-powered by two D cells which had run out of juice more than a year ago, and neither he nor Margaret had replaced them. The one in the bedroom was plugged in, but the antenna was one of those wire deals that you had to tack to the wall and hope it stayed up while you listened to the Big Game.
Margaret had been moving things around in their bedroom one early Saturday morning when she accidentally ripped the wire out of the back of the radio. No channels came in after that, not even the FM station three blocks away. But it was only used as an alarm most of the time, and it had never been fixed or replaced.
Then his eyes settled in on something that left him nodding with approval.
“Ah,” he said, pleased with himself. “The answering machine.”
He strolled over to the phone on the baker’s rack to check the messages. He had a hunch someone had called late and left a message and that was what he had heard.
There were always salesmen calling at all hours of the night. He once answered the phone on Christmas Eve at ten-thirty to find that someone wanted to run a credit check to see if there was any money he could save on his bills. After that, they didn’t answer the phone after nine in the evening as a rule.
He pressed the playback button for the messages and the most recent call was played. He recognized the voice. It was Margaret’s sister, Delilah.
“Gotcha!” he exclaimed, now ecstatic with his sleuth-like deductions. “Elementary, dear Watson.”
Ralph was a Sherlock Holmes fanatic. He had read them all at least three times and had seen all the movies. As the message on the recorder played the time the call was placed he stopped short of his celebration. Two-thirty PM, the monotone voice commanded, and it had not been left today but yesterday. He checked the current time on the recorder just to make sure it was correct and found it off by only two minutes.
“Rule number one, my Dear Boy: ‘One should always look for a possible alternative and provide against it’.”
He stuck the ear piece of his bifocals in his mouth to masquerade as a pipe and went on: “It seems we have a real mystery. The game’s afoot!”
But that night he did not find anything. There was nothing to explain what caused the voices or where they came from — if they were actually real. What irritated him most was that they didn’t return so he could pinpoint a location.
Many times he had stood silent in the middle of that living room to listen for mice and where they were nesting. He’d slowly circle in on them and make short work of their extermination. But no matter how long he stood in silence this night the voices that he heard never returned.
He reluctantly retired to bed empty-handed and tossed and turned for over thirty minutes before falling asleep. The thought was stuck in his mind and he couldn’t shake it. If he could only come up with some solution, something to justify where these voices came from, then all would be fine. But it had already become an obsession. And that meant only one thing: he had to discover the source.
Copyright © 2009 by Thomas Willits