Chapter 43 of The Empty City

By Andrew Looney



By James L. Ruckel

One evening in late August I returned home to find a cardboard box sitting in front of the door to my apartment. It contained nothing of importance-a few books, some records, a sweater. I stored them in my closet.

Not long after that, I found myself unable to sleep. Each night, I would return from my place of employment, eat a T.V. dinner, and then, if I were lucky, I could take a nap. An hour, maybe two. But after that I was wide awake, and nothing I did could bring sleep to my eyes. I would wait under the covers, looking at the ceiling, until dawn stabbed through the curtains.

I tried all the usual things: I washed handfuls of sleeping pills down with warm milk. I read enormous volumes of great literature, and I listened to Frank Sinatra on the radio. I bought a record of the sound of the ocean. I went to a doctor who tried hypnosis and taught me various relaxation techniques. But nothing helped. I could not sleep. After awhile, I gave up trying.

By October of that year, I had become used to my insomnia, and I settled into a regular routine. After my nap, I would turn on the T.V. and watch late night programming until about 3:00 AM, when most of it ends. Then, I would wrap myself up in blankets and skulk about the apartment, working on little projects, until the sun came up. I solved ten thousand piece puzzles, I wrote to newspaper advice columnists, I sewed up the holes in my socks.

Winter arrived. I had to bundle up with more blankets as it got colder, because my landlord had a habit of pretending that the heating system was broken, in order to save on utilities. On particularly cold and snowy nights, I stayed in the kitchen and cooked up instant cakes and ready-to-bake cookies. I usually did not eat them, but the heat of the oven was a comfort.

In the spring, I came to the conclusion that my inability to sleep was due to some sort of deficiency in my life; I felt that something important was missing, but I didn't know exactly what. Therefore, I decided to effect changes. I got a haircut, and started growing a beard. I wore different styles of clothing. I moved into the city. But my life proceeded much as it had before, and sleep remained impossible.

My new apartment was on the fourteenth floor of a gleaming new residential complex. Living downtown was expensive, but I was able to afford it, having little else to spend my money on. The city was crowded during the day, but at night it was surprisingly empty. It seemed that everyone came to work in the city by day, but went home to the suburbs at night. My whole apartment building seemed to have only half a dozen residents. I sometimes wondered if all of the skyscrapers were even real buildings. I imagined them to be great hulking machines, quietly performing some unknown task.

On the warm evenings of summer, I took to strolling through the empty streets. It was very calm and pleasant. I felt quite comfortable, alone with the huge gray slabs of concrete and the quietly winking neon signs. But I soon realized that I wasn't completely alone. There were others like me in the empty city. I saw them in alleyways and on street corners. They sat alone in all night coffee shops. A few sat on benches in bus terminals. But most of them sat alone at the windows of darkened rooms, ducking out of sight when I happened to gaze in their direction.

I saw them often, but never spoke to them. We all knew there was nothing to say. I did look into their eyes, and I could see they were all waiting for something. As I was.

The summer slowly passed. One night, my wanderings took me to an old warehouse. I went in, and was met with a voice:

"What are you doing here?"

"I'm sorry," I replied, "I thought this place was empty."

"You didn't answer the question."

"Um...I'm looking for something."


"I'm not sure."

"Is it something you lost?"

"Something I never really had."

"Then how do you know you want it?"

I gave no answer.

"Well," said the voice in the darkness, "I hope you find it."

"So do I," I said, as I turned and left.


One evening it rained, and I managed to sleep for over three hours. And I had this dream:

I was seated at a table in a very expensive restaurant. There were no menus. The waiter brought me a thick, juicy steak. I took up knife and fork, and sliced off a large bite. I chewed slowly. It was the most succulent and delicious taste I could imagine. My heart leapt at the new flavor. I prepared to swallow. Then arms seized me, hands gripped me by chin and forehead, and my mouth was forced open. Large metal tongs were brought forth. The bite of meat was removed and discarded. I watched helplessly as my steak was served to another man. Then I was lifted from my chair, and thrown out into the street.


The quality of my work began to slip. The boss took notice, and spoke to me about it.

"I don't want to be hard on you. You've been such a good employee for so long."

I nodded in agreement.

"But you must realize my position. If the work is done poorly, I have to answer for it."

I nodded. He held up a small plastic part, the manufacture of which I was responsible for. It was called Part Number 37. It would eventually be used in the assembly of electric can openers.

"Now look at this 37," said my boss. I looked at it. It was misshapen and discolored. "We can't use a damaged part like this."

I nodded.

"A factory runs on teamwork. You know that. Yet your fellow workers say that you have been acting strangely towards them."

"I haven't been sleeping too well of late."

"I see. Well, I'm not going to give you an Official Reprimand this time, but see to it that your work improves."

"Yes sir." I turned to go.

"Have you tried sleeping pills?"

"Yes. They don't work. That's not what I need."


As fall enveloped the city, and the nights began to get nippy, I started to frequent a particular doughnut shop. I enjoyed its pleasant atmosphere. It was warm and bright inside, and the strong smell of doughnuts was intoxicating. For most of the night, a round woman named Beatrice ran the shop. I knew her name was Beatrice because she wore a little plastic badge engraved with the name Beatrice. She was perfect for the job. She had a smile permanently tattooed onto her face, and phrases like "have a nice day" and "thank you come again" rolled off her tongue without any apparent effort on her part. When no customers required her attention, she would sit down behind the counter and read romance novels.

Around 4:00 AM, a friendly old man named Peter would emerge from the cold gray city, and begin cooking the doughnuts for the coming day. He had the strange habit of whistling the theme music from various T.V. shows as he pounded the dough and formed it into doughnut shapes.

At about 6:00 AM, a quiet young woman named Sally came in to take over for Beatrice. Sally had glasses, and long brown hair which she usually kept up in a bun. For two weeks I sat waiting all night for her to arrive; when she did, I unobtrusively watched her every movement until almost 8:00 AM when I had to go to the factory.

Then one morning, she spoke to me.

"What's your name?"

The sound of her voice made me jump. "William," I said," What's yours?"


"Then how come it says Sally on your badge?"

"They didn't have any Sandra nametags so they gave me the closest thing they had."


"So what brings you into this place every night?"

"I can't sleep."

"Not at all?"

"Well, sometimes for an hour or two."

"Have you tried..."

"I've tried everything."

"...bedtime stories?"


"When I was a little girl and couldn't get to sleep, my mother read me bedtime stories. Worked every time."

She took a paper bag out from under the counter and wrote her phone number just above the words "Fresh Delicious Doughnuts." "Here. Call me up tonight, and I'll read you a bedtime story."

"Thank you."

As I walked to the factory that morning, I found myself yawning.

Copyright © 1991 by Andrew Looney.

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