Jim Billings had been known to sleepwalk. When he was a
boy he would wake up in the middle of the night in the kitchen,
under the deck. He would draw on the sidewalk with red chalk.
At times he would find inexplicable scratches on his arms. Jim
would brush his teeth in his sleep. He would play with knives,
light matches. He would fall down the stairs. His parents would
find Jim sorting through their closet, asleep. They became wary of
Jim, afraid of what they might find him doing. Though his parents
never wanted to lock Jim in his room, they were forced to for his
own sake. They locked the windows as well.
Once, when Jim was in his early thirties, he wanted to see
what would happen if he didn't constrain himself. Two days later
Jim stood in the residential street outside of his house, only waking
at the blaring sound of a horn. Jim finally decided that some
irrepressible part of him just didn't want to rest, didn't want to lay still. He began locking himself in his room for his own safety,
hiding the key.
Jim always wondered if his sleepwalking scared women from
marrying him. Kelly was never comfortable feeling trapped in a
room. Judith hated thinking that at some point Jim might
unconsciously hurt her. Anna didn't like the idea that he was out
of control, that some unconscious element overrode Jim's better
instincts. The women in his life would find him lurking over them,
standing at the window, bumping his head against the wall.
Eventually Jim's sleepwalking got the best of Kelly and Judith and
Anna. Jim would try to explain that he couldn't help it. This
didn't necessarily make matters easier.
During the day Jim was an ordinary bank teller. The job had
short hours, and though the position didn't offer much in terms of
pay, Jim enjoyed interacting with the regular customers and he
enjoyed offering small bits of financial advice. Jim appreciated the
feeling that he was doing his small part in maintaining the small
workings of society. He felt emboldened by helping others. If he
was honest with himself, Jim would admit he enjoyed handling
At night Jim never had a difficult time falling asleep. Jim
rarely dreamed. Jim found it difficult to remember if he
sleepwalked or if he didn't sleepwalk. If he didn't wake up in a
foreign environment (the street, his yard, the kitchen,), Jim
wouldn't recall a single detail regarding that night. His parents
said he slept "like a stump." It just so happened he was a stump
that got up and walked at night.
One March night Jim woke at three twenty one in the
morning, climbing into his own kitchen window in The Bottoms.
Jim was startled when he realized where he was. Since his brief
experiment in his thirties, Jim locked his bedroom door and his
windows. But what Jim realized was that in his sleepwalking state
he must have discovered how to unlock the window. This terrified
Jim: if his unconscious state could process thoughts, if he could let
himself out of his room, how could he stop himself from
committing even the worst actions?
The next afternoon, Jim decided he should go for a walk,
something to clear his head. He walked up Bottoms Drive, to the
entrance to Meadow Haven. Jim knew Meadow Haven was a
gated community, but the property on the exterior of the gate was
fair game. That evening, he walked the perimeter of Meadow
Haven. The woods were cool. He could see smell the red maple
trees. Jim could see into kitchens and bathrooms and bedrooms.
Somehow this relaxed him.
Jim felt the urge to buy seeds. Never having cultivated an
interest in gardening, this surprised him. After making a pot of
Kraft Macaroni and cheese, Jim drove to the grocery store and
bought six packages of snap beans. He liked the mental image this
gave him. He could imagine snapping the beans between his
fingers. Outside of the store, Jim sat on the hood of his rusty 1993
Volvo Station Wagon. He squinted through the murky scrim of
light pollution at the outline of stars. Saplings grew. In an island
in the middle of the strip mall parking lot. They were the only
trees in sight. Jim wondered how many Safeway customers know
the name of those trees. He didn't. He doubted more than a
handful did. Fifty years ago all this was common knowledge, Jim
thought. So much has been lost. On the drive back to The
Bottoms, Jim noticed the milky outlines of the trees against the
glow of Route Seven.
Jim placed the snap beans on the kitchen table next to a stack
of bills and a picture of his mother and father. In the photo his
parents wore matching red and white sweaters. They looked into
each other's eyes and beamed. To Jim their direct and unmitigated
happiness was almost too much to bear.
That night Jim fell asleep at eleven thirty and by two thirty he
was sleepwalking. He walked to the kitchen and gathered the
seeds and pulled a spoon from the utensil drawer. Jim walked out
of his home and to the Meadow Haven gate. At the perimeter of
the gate, Jim began digging holes with the spoon. In each hole Jim
placed a snap bean seed. He worked his way around the gate in
this way, planting seeds in the hard ground. He planted six
packages worth. Then he woke up.
When Jim awoke he was shocked. He didn't know where he
was. Except for the few exterior lights, it was dark and he grasped
the gate for support. When he remembered Meadow Haven, he
had a sense of his location. He let his eyes adjust. Like a blind
man, Jim held onto the fence-letting it guide him back to
Meadow Haven Way. It was cold. Jim was freezing. His shivers
kept him awake. He thought it couldn't be any warmer than thirty
As he made his way home, Jim drew a hot bath for himself.
He soaked in the bath for an hour, listening to the sounds of The
Bottoms waking to start a new day: cars starting, high heels on sidewalks, the jingle of keys, doors thumping shut.
Jim didn't know why he clutched a spoon in his left hand. He
couldn't let it go. He felt alone in this world.
Jim decided to go see his doctor. The doctor prescribed him a
small dose of Lorazepam, to be taken before bedtime each night.
The appointment took five minutes. The doctor said he read one
report that suggested ions could induce some patients to sleepwalk.
"What do you think of that?"
Jim shrugged. It was a thought. There wasn't much he could
do to defeat ions.
He had researched sleepwalking on the Internet. Various sites
suggested relaxation techniques, stress reduction, hypnosis,
psychiatric intervention, elimination of alcohol and coffee from the
diet. This made it that much more difficult to face the night. He
read of cases where husbands stabbed their wives in their sleep-
or so they claimed. In some ways Jim was glad he wasn't married.
Deciding to restrain himself again, Jim slept with his bedroom
door secured by a combination lock, his windows barred.
Nevertheless, at three o'clock in the morning, Jim found himself
driving home from the 24 hour grocery store, ten packages of
spinach in a plastic bag on the passenger seat. The next night Jim
constrained himself further: chaining himself to the bed, hiding
the key in the pages of a magazine. At two forty five the next
morning, Jim awoke to find himself planting spinach seeds along
the eastern face of the Meadow Haven gate, the key to his bed
chains in his pocket.
Despite it all, Jim didn't recall a single dream. In fact, as far
as Jim could remember, he hadn't dreamt in years.
In April Jim took afternoon walks to witness the growth in his
snap beans and in his spinach. By mid-April he could see spinach
stalks rising from the garden bed. He didn't see snap beans. When
he asked one of his colleagues about the beans she told him it was
far too early for beans. "Not until May," she said.
At night Jim would repeat these walks.
One night Jim was unconsciously circling Meadow Haven
when he came across a woman doing the same. She was tall and
her back was stiff. She wore a sleeping gown adorned with a
pattern of bald eagles carrying olive branches. Her dark hair was
cut in a short bob. Her face was soft and open, eyes set wider than
most. Her face looked Eastern European. The pockets of her
nightgown were stuffed with bark.
"What are you doing?" she asked. Her hands probed the
"Spinach testing," Jim said. "You?"
"I'm collecting bark," she said. "Samples."
"That's good," Jim said.
"Amelia," she said, fingering the bark in her packet.
"I'm Jim," he said. "I'm a banker."
"Housewife," Amelia said. "Homemaker. Someday I might
teach math again. I enjoyed that."
"What is the square root of nine?" Jim asked.
"Well," Jim said.
"What is the square root of 37?"
"I have no clue," Jim said.
"6.08276530. And it goes on and on."
Amelia kissed Jim on the forehead, right between his eyes.
Then she wandered back into the darkness toward her house in The
Bottoms. When Jim awoke, he was in his bed. He didn't
remember a thing.
Sleepwalking, Jim and Amelia began meeting in the woods
each night. She never kissed his forehead again. Some nights they
would hold hands. Amelia showed him how to collect the best
bark. She even taught him a math trick or two.
They had long conversations about ideals, family, future,
unfulfilled dreams, politics. Amelia was a third grade teacher. Her
mother had a stroke and she was worried. Her husband watched
too much television, she said. He was on the computer all the
time. Amelia said she sometimes felt lonely. She wished she
could connect to someone, really experience a union of souls. Jim
talked about sailing-how he wanted to get back to that. He
wanted to live near the water, listen to the caw of the seagulls.
"I wish I wasn't so lazy," Jim said. "There's so much I'd like
to do. I just can't seem to start the engine."
"Like what?" Amelia asked. They stood there inert, eyes
closed, breathing heavily.
"I think I could be an inventor. I'd like to do that. To imagine
objects that don't exist, to bring them to life."
"I'd like that too," Amelia said. "And I'd like to invent
numbers. I know that sounds impossible."
"There are so many things we can talk about," Jim said.
"It's true," Amelia said.
They held hands and talked in this way.
Amelia and Jim walked around and around. They slowly
circled Meadow Haven hundreds of times. If you saw them
walking together through the woods you would think they were a
husband and wife on a romantic stroll. If either of them awoke
during their sleepwalking spells, they would see they wore a trail
through the woods. The gate wasn't far off. The Bottoms were
out of sight. But they didn't wake up and they didn't remember a
thing. They never did.