Praying For Sleep Excerpt

Like a cradle, the hearse rocked him gently.

The old vehicle creaked along a country road, the asphalt cracked and root-humped. He believed the journey had so far taken several hours though he wouldn’t have been surprised to find that they’d been on the road for days or weeks. At last he heard the squeal of bad brakes and was jostled by an abrupt turn. Then they were on a good road, a state road, and accelerating quickly.
He rubbed his face across a satiny label sewn inside the bag. He couldn’t see the label in the darkness but he remembered the words elegantly stitched in black thread on yellow cloth.

Union Rubber Products
Trenton, NJ 08606

He caressed this label with his ample cheek and sucked air through the minuscule opening where the zipper hadn’t completely seated. The smoothness of the hearse’s transit suddenly troubled him. He felt he was falling straight down to hell, or maybe into a well where he’d be wedged immobile, head down, forever… This thought aroused a piercing fear of confinement and when it grew unbearable he craned his neck and drew back his thick lips. He gripped the inside of the zipper with lengthy teeth, yellow and gray as cat’s claws, and with them he struggled to work the mechanism open. An inch, two, then several more. Cold, exhaust-scented air filled the bag. He inhaled greedily. The air diminished the bristle of claustrophobia and he calmed. An ironic thought occurred to him and he laughed boyishly. The men who took away the dead called what he now lay in  a crash bag. But he couldn’t recall these men ever taking away anyone dead from a crash. The dead ones died by leaping from the top of the stairwell in Ward E. They died from severed veins in their fat forearms. They died face down in toilets and they died like the man this afternoon — a strip of cloth wound ’round and ’round and ’round his neck.

But he couldn’t recall a single crash.

His teeth rose from his lips again and he worked the zipper open further, eight inches, ten. His round shaved head emerged from the jagged opening. With his snarling lips and thick face he had the appearance of a bear — though one that was not only hairless but blue, for much of his head was dyed that color.

Finally able to look about him he was disappointed to find that this wasn’t a real hearse at all but merely a station wagon, and it wasn’t even black but tan. The back windows weren’t shaded and he could see ghostly forms of trees, signs, power towers and barns as the wagon sped past — his view distorted by the filthy windows and the misty darkness of this autumn evening.

In five minutes he began on the zipper again with his teeth, angry that his arms were pinioned helpless by, he muttered in frustration, “damn good New Jersey rubber.” He opened the crash bag another four inches.

He frowned. What was that noise?

Music! It came from the front seat, separated from him by a black fiberboard divider. He generally liked music but certain melodies could upset him severely. The one he now heard, a country-western tune, set off, for some reason, these thoughts:

The bag is so damn constricted…

It’s constricted because I’m not alone…

I’m not alone because it’s filled with the souls of the crashed and shattered bodies, lying amid sorrow and dread…

The jumpers and the drowners and wrist slitters…

He believed that these souls hated him, that they knew he was an impostor. They wanted to seal him up alive, forever, in the tight rubber bag. And with these thoughts came the evening’s first brush of real panic — raw, liquid, cold. He tried to relax by using the breathing exercises he’d been taught but it was too late. Sweat popped out on his skin, tears formed in his eyes. He shoved his head viciously into the opening of the bag. He wrenched his hands up as far as they’d go and beat the thick rubber. He kicked with his bare feet. He slammed the bridge of his nose into the zipper, which snapped out of track and froze.

Michael Hrubek began to scream.

The music stopped, replaced by a mumble of confused voices. The hearse rippled sideways like an airplane in a crosswind.

Hrubek slammed his torso upward then fell back, again and again, trying to force his way out of the small opening, his massive neck muscles knotting into thick cables, his eyes bulging. He screamed and wept and screamed again. A tiny door in the black partition flew open and two wide eyes stared into the back of the vehicle. Surrendering to the panic, Hrubek neither saw the attendant nor heard the man’s hysterical shout, “Stop! Stop the car. Christ, stop!”

The station wagon careened onto the shoulder amid a staccato clatter of pebbles. A cloud of dust surrounded it, and the two attendants, wearing pastel green jumpsuits, leapt out and ran to the back of the hearse. One tore open the door. A small yellow light above Hrubek’s face popped on, frightening him further and starting a jag of screaming.

“Shit, he’s not dead,” said this attendant, the younger of the two.

“Shit he’s not dead? It’s an escape! Get back.”

Hrubek screamed again and convulsed forward. His veins rose in deep clusters from his blue skull and neck, and straps of tendon quivered. Flecks of foam and blood filled the corner of his mouth. The belief, and hope, that he was having a stroke occurred simultaneously to each attendant.

“Settle down, you!” shouted the youthful attendant.

“You’re just going to get in more trouble!” his partner shrilled at Hrubek, and added with no threat or conviction whatsoever, “We’ve caught you now so just settle down. We’re going to take you back.”

Hrubek let go a huge scream. As if under the power of this sound alone the zipper gave way and metal teeth fired from the body bag like shotgun pellets. Sobbing and gasping for air he leapt forward and rolled over the tailgate, crouching on the ground, naked except for his white boxer shorts. He ignored the attendants, who danced away from him, and rested his head against his own distorted reflection in the pitted chrome bumper of the hearse.

“All right, that’s enough of that!” the younger attendant growled. When Hrubek said nothing but merely rubbed his cheek against the bumper and wept, the attendant lifted an oak branch twice the length of a baseball bat and waved it at him with some menace.

“No,” the other attendant said to his partner, who nonetheless swung at the massive naked shoulders, as if taking on a fast ball. The wood bounced off with hardly a sound and Hrubek seemed not to notice the blow. The attendant refreshed his grip. “Son of a bitch.”

His partner’s hand snagged the weapon. “No. That’s not our job.”

Hrubek stood up, his chest heaving, and faced the attendants. They stepped back. But the huge man didn’t advance. Exhausted, he studied the two men curiously for a moment and sank once more to the ground then scrabbled away, rolling into the grass by the road, oblivious to the cold autumn dew that lacquered his body. A whimper came from his fleshy throat.

The attendants eased toward the hearse. Without closing the back door they leapt inside and the wagon shot away, spraying Hrubek with stones and dirt. Numb, he didn’t feel this pummeling and merely lay immobile on his side, gulping down cold air that smelled of dirt and shit and blood and grease. He watched the hearse vanish through a blue cloud of tire smoke, grateful that the men were gone, and that they’d taken with them the terrible bag of New Jersey rubber filled with its ghostly occupants.

After a few minutes the panic became a stinging memory then a dark thought and then was nearly forgotten. Hrubek rose to his full six foot, four height, and stood bald and blue as a Druid.  He snatched up a handful of grass and wiped his mouth and chin. He studied the geography around him. The road was in the middle of a deep valley; bony ridges of rock rose up on either side of the wide asphalt. Behind him in the west — where the hearse had come from — the hospital was lost in darkness many miles away. Ahead, distant lights of houses were vaguely visible.

Like an animal released from his captors, he circled in an awkward, cautious lope, uncertain of which direction to take.

Then, like an animal finding a scent, he turned toward the lights in the east and began to run, with an ominous grace and at a great speed.