Then Going to Sleep

John S. Cooney

The red shoes are too small for the man’s feet. He stands in the dark, snow blowing against his face, bare heels hanging off the rubber soles. The block is silent, faceless rowhouses, windows blank, blinds pulled. The man huddles inside his overcoat with the collar unfolded past his ears. Flannel pajamas leave his ankles exposed. Silver hair flapping in the wind, needs a cut. Square head on a thick neck.

The dog is sniffing gingerly at the base of a tree. Arthritic legs shaking, nose alive and engaged. The tree is spindly, bare, no bigger around than a wrist. His tail twitches with vague curiosity.

“Are you serious?” The man stuffs his hands deep into his pockets, the leash trailing in a sagging curve. “This is what I’m asking you—are you serious?”

The dog lifts his face, his muzzle long-since white. Eyes are running, cloudy. The black lips part.

“Who else would I be talking to?” The man shakes gathering snow from the leash. “Unless you see someone else out here.”

The grapefruit is being ravished. The man’s experienced fingers are wide and short, rugged nails, hairy knuckles. A pile of thick, fragrant skin and delicate pith grows beside the empty sandwich wrapper.

“—some people love it, believe it or not.”

“Really?” The intern pauses, up to his wrist in a bag of chips.

The man’s tie has diagonal pink stripes and he talks fast. The fruit is now half stripped. “It happens—if you were one of those worthless bastards, I’d hire you myself.”

“So you could hire me.”

“This surprises you?” The man is peeling a long ribbon from the soft flesh, the fruit turning, his square head down, thick neck, longish silver hair obscuring his face. “One of the pleasures of growing old,” he speaks without looking, “I get to make decisions.”

The lunchroom is filling up, the other tables crowded with people in suits. Mostly young men, white, Asian, black. In their twenties. The space is large and painted a tasteful beige, with drapes and paintings and plants that old Polish women water once a week. “But don’t worry,” the man grins. “I wouldn’t do that to you.”

“I don’t—” The intern holds two potato chips. Small, translucent discs, childish and greasy. He slips them back into the bag. “Sorry, I think maybe I’m not following something here—”

“Come on, you don’t really want this job, do you?”

“I’d love a job here.”

“Liar.” The man points with a peel triangle. The air is heavy with citrus. “No one loves spreadsheets, you just want to tell your parents you got hired—”

“—this firm is an industry leader, working here could make my whole career—not to mention that I’ve got rent to pay, a credit card, student loans—”

“You don’t want this career—the money and the fast cars and the big houses aren’t worth it.” The man sits back, moist hands held away from his body. “And you don’t really have to pay back student loans, do you?”

This cannot possibly be true. And yet. When you are running late, the bus is always slower. Every time.

It’s natural to assume the world revolves around you. From the view out of our gun slits, it literally does. Everything is known only from a single perspective. So one must be on guard. Prepared to take everything provisionally. It is a consequence of living on this planet, in the last years of its furious existence. We know too much, in that we know we know too little.

The intern leans his head against the window. Outside it is gray and cold. The street torn up, being repaired slowly by men in flannel, hooded sweatshirts, orange vests, blue hard hats squatting on their heads. That may be snow. Or it may just be a dirty window moving across a dirty world.

The intern yawns. Exhaustion used to be a constant. In college, the alarm went off at 4.30am, practice started at 5.00am. Stumbling zombies in sweats, sticks dangling from their hands. Transformed by a whistle into a swarm of fast-moving predators, precision-tuned bodies with helmets and weapons now held high, wielded with power. To some end. Counting down a finite list of games until the last one is finished, win or lose. Possibilities constrained. No one on that team was going pro. Crowds numbering in the dozens. Four years of waking before dawn, dragging the tortured body into the cold, the knee that always hurt. Maybe it was fun. Maybe it was rewarding. Who can remember? Lacrosse started at some point prior to consciousness. Then it just was.

Self-obsession is pervasive among collegiate athletes. This is known, accepted. Every twinge treated. Physical progress or regression measured, recorded, compared. Food and drink optimized, monitored, and administered in frankly enormous doses. From the beginning, none of us had a chance.

And yet. The bus is really slow this morning. It can’t be a coincidence. Not all the time.

It’s cold and dark. The snow on the ground has solidified into gray rock below the current accumulation. The dog is sniffing the lower edge of the neighbor’s wrought-iron fence, trailing his nylon lead back to the rumpled, yawning man wearing too small red shoes.

The dog stops suddenly, head swinging to the left, ears at attention. The other side of the street is empty, the only motion from the falling snow. He turns back to the man, who shrugs.

“What do you want from me? I’m not the one who pissed on the fence.”

The man is wiping his thick fingers with a shredded napkin. The grapefruit is completely bare, its rind scattered in a rough orbit.

The men at the long table behind him have rolled up their sleeves. One of them is standing and imitating someone else, possibly an animal, his body contorting, his mouth twisted as his friends laugh. Looks to be a crab, hands snapping pincers. Everyone is having fun.

“Christ, if you drink enough coffee, you can do anything.” The man frowns at the napkin, decomposing in his hands, and discards it absently onto the field of grapefruit scraps. “If you move fast, you never even notice—everyone looks at you like you can do anything, and maybe you can, who’s to say?”

Half-full, the bag of potato chips is crumpled beside an unopened can of Mountain Dew. The intern’s body is inclined forward. “I’m not looking to do anything, just something, I don’t need to—”

“—what I’m telling you is, the world is your goddamned oyster, kid—”

“—I really don’t think that’s true.”

“Of course it’s not true—why are you looking for truth from someone my age?” The man pulls off a section of the grapefruit and slips it between his lips. His jaws work on the juicy pulp as he talks. “All we’ve got are memories, and there are few lies as seductive as a memory—”

“But I don’t need the truth, just a job.”

“A job’s the last thing you need.” The man is separating another piece of fruit. “Trust me on that—I don’t have much to offer besides warnings, so the least you can do is listen to those.” Two new segments go into his mouth at once. “I don’t know, it’s probably too late now.”

The intern swallows with difficulty. He is now slumped back in his chair. Playing with the tab on the Mountain Dew. “It’s always too late, isn’t it?”

“Didn’t used to be.” The man freezes with his hands dripping onto the table. His lips are glistening, his eyes searching. Then he picks up the already-destroyed napkin. “I feel like I’m being an asshole, am I being an asshole?”

The waiting is intolerable. The driver sits, door closed, engine rumbling, bus immobile. The logic is conclusive, the timetable exists and it must be kept. It is only fair to the other customers. The driver is doing the right thing.

A solid rubber lacrosse ball driven into a steel-sided bus would not cause any real damage. Possibly a dent. Striking the windshield flush would probably not trouble the reinforced glass. The intern hunches further down in the seat, wrapping his arms against himself. He slips clear of the defender in slow motion, ball cradled in the pocket, top right corner fat and tempting as he rotates back, hands sliding down the shaft, a delicious moment of stillness and possibility, hope and potential, fecundity. Then his torso snaps forward, stick following, and the ball explodes into the dull-witted bus.

Waking up at 4.30am is hard. Being forced to wake up at 4.30am is easy. Going to practice, then going to breakfast, then going to class, then going to the weight room, then going to practice, then going to study, then going to sleep. Discipline is easy. The intern reaches down to rub at his right knee. He yawns. Schedules are easy.

The schedule, however, is not infinite. There was a last day and it has passed. The next schedule hasn’t started yet, although the internship is a temporary schedule, a brief respite between the two real schedules. If the world smiles at him, the temporary schedule will calcify into a real schedule at some point soon. And then it will be easy again.

But the temporary schedule is not a real schedule. And because it’s not a real schedule, cracks have started to appear. Questions that should not be raised. Thoughts that cannot be unthought. The intern continues to massage his leg. The schedule ends.

Cracks have started to appear. The driver is obligated to wait. The mind can find no fault, the logic is seamless, the bus must stand motionless. And without motion, the cracks grow.

The dog stands at the bottom of the stairs, looking up the open wooden steps. The man is on the first landing, the leash trailing back toward the animal’s neck. Wind plays with the falling snow, changing the angles.

The man leans against the railing. The dog’s mouth is open, not panting, exactly. Chewing air. His nose is lifted into the precipitation, the solid obstacle insurmountable before him, his worn paws spread to support his growing weight. The front door is shut, ten feet off the ground, the windows dark. He sniffs the edge of the first stair, nose down to the frozen wood. Then he looks up at the man and takes a step back.

“Who gives a shit about your resume? I never look at resumes, as a matter of principle.”

“Seriously? Isn’t that crazy?”

“HR weeds out the lunatics, the unqualified.” The grapefruit is gone, the napkin dissolved into moist crumbs spread over the table. The man begins to corral the debris with the edge of his hand. “I just hire the guy most likely to work his ass off, usually a little dumb—oh, and I never hire women, although to be honest, I couldn’t tell you why.”

The intern nods. “That’s illegal, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, that’s probably illegal,” the man is creating a square pile, “at the very least it’s hugely unethical—”

“—but it works, hiring analysts like that?”

“The numbers I need require no thinking, just an enormous amount of research—I do the thinking on the way to the meetings.” The man throws his hands up. “I don’t know if it really works or not, but it does make a hell of a lot of money.”

The intern puts the unopened can of soda back on the table. “You know, that’s really terrible—”

“—don’t get me wrong, kid, I’ve got no illusions, I know what I’ve done, what we’ve all done.” The man uses his arm to sweep the mound of refuse onto the floor. “I’ve got no illusions—this is what I’m telling you—”

The light has turned green. The traffic has parted. They lurch forward, the intern tucked ever tighter into his space between the side of the bus and the seat.

Won’t be long now.

John S. Cooney
John Cooney

John S. Cooney is a web developer who lives in Chicago with his wife Bridget and an old dog named Elwood. He was born in England, grew up in Northern Virginia, and went to the University of Virginia for English and Religious Studies. Then Going to Sleep is his first published story. Visit him at