When one goes visiting one’s relatives, there are certain things one takes for granted: 1) there will be a lot of food, 2) there will be lively conversation, and 3) there won’t be a lot of sleep. I’m fully aware of these three basic tenants of family get-togethers, but some days it doesn’t pay to get out of bed in the morning. And some days the bed doesn’t give you a choice.
On my most recent visit to the Upstate for quality time with the extended family, in general, a good time was had by all. Except when it came time for bed, that is. Upon my initial arrival, my grandmother took me downstairs to the finished basement room that is my usual abode when visiting and has been since childhood. I like it down there: it’s cool, it’s private and, for the most part, it’s quiet. This time I was to sleep upon a cot that was basically an air mattress with legs. I thought that would work splendidly. It did the last time I used it so I had no qualms about it this time. I was a little disconcerted to find it sagging and half inflated when my grandmother claimed to have already inflated it. She seemed as puzzled as I was and so applied the motorized pump and inflated it again. As soon as the motor cut off, I detected with my bat-like hearing a soft hissing sound. My grandmother hadn’t even noticed. When we picked up the mattress, we found that the sound was coming from a half-inch tear in the underside of the mattress. Well, that certainly explained things. So my grandmother told me to stand there with my finger in the hole like the little Dutch boy at the proverbial dyke while she went and found some duct tape. Fortunately, it wasn’t a very long wait and, with the application of a generous piece of the silver tape, we were both sure that the problem was solved.
Upon my return to the basement at midnight, a mere four hours later, I found the makeshift patch to still be holding nicely. I climbed gingerly into bed, whispered a little prayer that the patch might hold through the night and, with the nighttime sounds of the basement pulsing softly around me, I drifted quickly and peacefully off to sleep.
My first sensation was that of an irksome pain in my lower lumbar. I decided to ignore it, as I was well and pleasantly ensconced on the outskirts of a REM cycle with no intention of leaving. But against my will, my consciousness came slipping to the surface of my sleep-addled brain, forcing me to confront this interloper to my comfort and deal with it forthwith. I soon realized that this unwelcome interruption was nothing less than the folding legs of the air mattress digging into my back and side through what had once been an air-filled plastic cushion. I shifted and once more attempted to ignore the offending interruption but it was no use. This problem would have to be addressed.
I struggled out of the depleted bed and fumbled in the dark for the motor that I knew was there somewhere. If I was going to have to get up and deal with this annoyance I was at least going to do it with lights off and eyes closed. That didn’t last very long either as the air pump proved rather obstinate about seating properly on the mattress’s intake valve. So far I was 0 for 2 and could feel my already short fuse fuming steadily shorter. All I wanted was sleep and everything seemed to be working against me. I resolved to just hurry up, deal with the problem and get back to bed as quickly as possible. Honestly, how hard could it be to fix?
Upon re-inflation of the mattress, I found that the makeshift patch had not held and was once again venting its contents to the open air. I smoothed down the duct tape and added an extra piece for good measure. Then I climbed back into bed.
Thirty seconds later I heard a soft hissing from the underside of the mattress. I reached a hand down to the patch and found that yes, indeed, it had blown once again. For all its wondrous and multifaceted uses, duct tape was apparently no match for the weight of my supinated bulk. With eyes still closed and without climbing out of bed, I ripped off another piece of tape and applied it to the latest site of leakage. Thirty seconds later the hissing returned.
This process continued for a good long while, me refusing to get out of bed or give in to the leak, and the leak refusing to be cowed by the likes of industrial strength tape. I applied more tape where the new leaks formed. No good. I wedged my wallet between the leak and the support strut of the bed frame with the half-formed notion that the weight of my body on the bed might push the leak closed against the wallet, tape and support strut. No dice. I became so desperate that I attempted to fall asleep while holding the leak closed with my bare hand. This endeavor proved as successful as all the others before it. Finally, my ingenuity and my patience at an end, a torrent of language burst forth the likes of which I was sure had never seen the light of day in that house before. It was enough to make a sailor blush. It was also the first time I was glad that most of the bodies asleep in the house above me that night were hard of hearing. Still grumbling, I gathered up my bedding and headed upstairs to the living room.
Earlier my grandmother had mentioned that, if all else failed, I could always sleep in the recliner in the living room as a last resort. I had agreed readily enough, sure that it would never come to that. I was rather…”chagrined” to find myself fumbling to the chair in the dark, pulling it away from the wall and ratcheting it back as far as it would go. As I settled myself in, with sheet and blanket covering me, I saw that the clock read 2:56 am. I could still get a good couple hours of sleep before people started waking up. I figured I could make do with that. I’d done worse before. It would be fine. What I had neglected to consider was my grandfather’s clock collection.
My grandfather had been collecting clocks for years. I think it all started with the mantle piece clock he was given as a retirement present years ago. It had been in that house for as long as I could remember. From there he had steadily increased his collection from both presents received on various gift giving holidays as well as sundry clocks and watches he’d bought himself on less auspicious occasions. His collection ran the gamut from antique wind-up clocks to talking clocks to themed wall clocks whose hourly chimes were anything from tweeting birds to galloping horses to whistling trains. The latest addition to this collection was a beautiful antique grandfather clock whose doors he liked to keep standing wide open so as to have no impediment to the source of its quarterly hour chimes. And the living room is where this magnificent collection called home.
I lay for a moment in my new makeshift bed, sighing deeply in anticipation of the sleep to come and listening to the deep quiet of the night around me. I heard the low hum from the refrigerator down the hall. I heard someone turn in their bed. I heard the occasional creek of the house as it settled with the night. What utter peace and quiet. I smiled to myself as I thought proudly, and not for the first time, of my particular gift of “hearing acute” and how I was lucky to be so blessed. Now, at long last, I could finally get a good night’s rest.
I was just drifting back into that gray haze of nightly oblivion when I heard the click of a gear works behind me. Then the chiming began. It started with the grandfather clock and I groaned as I realized what was to come. When the grandfather clock tolled its last stroke of three, an electronic voice piped up out of the darkness to tell me in a clear and strident tone that “It’s 3 A.M.”. When the mantle piece clock started up its St. Michael’s chimes from the floating shelf directly over my head, I nearly lost it. Of course, all the clocks had been set to ring in succession! Why wouldn’t they?! How else could one thoroughly enjoy the unique tones and personality of each individual clock in its own unimpeded splendor? Blessedly, the frog, horse, bird and other type novelty clocks had a photoresistor built into their faces and only went off when a light was on. I think I heard another electronic voice and the digital recreations of a train whistle but I can’t be sure. I was too busy forging new, vile epithets straight from the fires of perdition and hurling them blindly out into the darkness to pay much attention.
Then I thought, “Okay, maybe, just maybe, these clocks are like many modern grandfather clocks: they stop chiming around 10pm and start up again at 7am, so as not to disturb one’s sleep. Or, if not, maybe it only chimes on the hour at night and maybe I will be deep asleep enough by then that I won’t hear them and I’ll be okay.” Fifteen minutes later, it started again.
But, finally, fortune smiled and my luck began to turn as I realized that my salvation was at hand. I stumped back down to the basement, damnation trailing from my lips as I went, to retrieve my deliverance from this nocturnal hell in which I languished so painfully.
When I was packing for this trip, I knew that I would eventually be making my way to Central New York and that my mother’s sisters would be on hand. My mother has three younger sisters who are rather a riotous bunch when all put in the same room together. Taken individually or in any combination of pairs, they are fine and respectable ladies. Well, at least tolerable. But when all three of them get together it’s like an unholy trinity, a perfect storm of vocal energy that just feeds off itself until the ensuing cacophony reaches unrelenting decibelic levels. And this can go on all night. So in order to get any kind of rest at all, and preserve my already tenuous sanity, I have to resort to a trick I happened upon during my time in pitched battle with the ever-present noise of the big City.
The persistence and intensity of the noise in the City can sometimes get unbearable, especially on the weekend when you’re the only person in a five block radius that has an early morning the next day. My genius solution consists of just 2 words: ear plugs. It doesn’t block out everything but it brings it all down to a decently tolerable level and lets you get some sleep. I knew all three of my aunts wouldn’t be there this time but I thought I’d pack the ear plugs just in case. They’d saved my life on more than one occasion and, hey, you never know, right?
Those sweet, little, “safety orange”-colored pieces of foam rubber did the trick once again. When the chimes went off at the next quarter hour, they were as soft as pastoral church bells on a snowy winter evening and soon I was finally back in the land of Nod.
In the morning, I cut such a pitiable figure lying there in the recliner, covered in a sheet and afghan with ear plugs stuffed in my ears, that the guilt was apparently overwhelming. So overwhelming in fact that I was granted an unheard of special dispensation: I was allowed to miss both the 7am and 9am Sunday morning services so that I could try and grab a few more hours of sleep on someone else’s now vacated, but mercifully intact, “bed”. I could have kissed them when they suggested it, and might have had I not been so bleary-eyed and ornery from my ordeal in the dark.
The next night, as I slipped onto a different air mattress in a different room in the house, I whispered another prayer, asking only that this mattress please remain whole through the night and that the morning find me still hovering peacefully above the cold, hard ground. As the grey light of dawn crept through the curtained windows, it found me once again on intimate terms with the wall-to-wall carpeting.
Like I said, some days it doesn’t pay to get out of bed in the morning.