Before You Wake

Richard Toon

Bill overslept again. He was late for work every day that week. He worked in a small lumber- yard on Fourth Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He cut lengths of wood on a circular saw to whatever size the boss said. It was noisy and dusty work but he liked the smell of saw-dust and the pay was not so bad. The boss warned Bill that if he were late again he would lose his job. Bill was dismayed.

When Monday came, the buzzer of Bill's alarm was preset to loud and blasted him in the ear. His arm was out of the bed and reaching for the snooze-button when the brain woke in a panic to avert the disaster. He was soon in the shower. He turned the temperature control to as cold as he could tolerate. In the tiny kitchen he poured himself a black coffee. The sports section of the Sunday newspaper was still open to the story he was reading yesterday. As he took his last sips of coffee, he finished the article on why the Knicks would not reach the play-offs. He glanced at himself in the mirror as he left. For an instant he thought that his reflection's eyes were closed. These dreams are haunting me, Bill thought.

It was a ten minute walk down the Slope to the lumber-yard. Down to Eighth Avenue where the tall apartment buildings of Prospect Park West become elegant tree-lined brownstones. Down to Seventh where the fancy curving stoops become simpler flights of stone steps. Down below Sixth and Fifth where the redbrick row houses peter out into old warehouses, crumbling shop fronts, and vacant lots along Fourth Avenue. The lumber-yard was located at the bottom of the Slope.

Bill looked at his watch. It was only five minutes to eight which meant that he was early. Bill entered the workshop and to his surprise found it empty. The lights were on and the machines hummed quietly. The sound of the machines became louder and louder and louder, until suddenly he was awake again in bed. The buzzer of the alarm was loud in his ear. His heart pounded and then sank as he realized he was late again. He ran through the routine just as before, except he did not stop to read the newspaper. Bill arrived thirty minutes late and the boss said he was out of a job.

Bill knew this was serious. He called a doctor he'd seen once when he caught flu and thought it was turning to pneumonia. Bill told the doctor the problem of getting up and how he kept dreaming he was going to work. He asked the doctor if he could give him something to stay awake so he wouldn't be tricked. The doctor said it was a bad idea. If Bill lost sleep and didn't dream, his body would soon become exhausted and crave sleep: he would then find it impossible to get to work on time. Bill did not tell the doctor he had already lost his job.

The doctor said he had a colleague who was conducting a study of sleep at the Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan. The doctor phoned his colleague while Bill sat in the waiting room. The doctor said that his colleague would be pleased to see Bill for a consultation. The research grant would pay for the consultation. Bill should go tomorrow morning to the address the doctor had written on a card. Bill saw that it was on the upper East Side on York Place. It was only a subway ride away. What have I got to lose? Bill thought.

It took four attempts for Bill to make it to the consultant. For three days he dreamed that he went to Grand Army Plaza and took a Two train to Nevins Street. He then changed for the Four train. He switched again at Grand Central Station for the Six-local and finally emerged at Sixty-eighth Street. From there it was an eight or nine-minute walk to the address on the card. The building looked different each time he arrived, but the sound of the door buzzer was always the same. He would then wake to find himself in bed reaching for the alarm. On the fourth attempt he made it to the address only to find that the receptionist had not expected him. After the missed appointment she was waiting for him to call to reschedule. Bill thought he had made the call but realized it was a dream. The receptionist asked him to take a seat anyway, she would see if the doctor could see him.

The doctor did see him and was fascinated to hear Bill's apology about the mix up. He led Bill to his private consulting room. The doctor asked Bill many questions about what he called his "sleep patterns" and wrote the replies on a yellow pad. He then gave a Bill physical examination. Finally, he asked strange questions. Did Bill ever hear voices when no one was around? Did anyone in his family have epilepsy? Did he take vitamin supplements? Had he a drug or drinking problem? What was his highest form of education? Had he ever been in a serious road accident or had a head trauma?

The doctor informed Bill that he thought this was an important case that required further study. He told Bill that there are hynogogic dreams: those that take place when someone is about to fall into a deep sleep. He told Bill that there are hynopompic dreams: those that take place just before someone wakes. Both types of dream have characteristic content and distinctive brain patterns. These brain patterns -- called alpha waves -- can be recorded while a patient sleeps. This must be done to Bill without delay. The doctor said that Bill was very unusual because those dreams that come just before waking are usually contentless and function to draw the dreamer away from the tensions of life. Bill's dreams, however, were indistinguishable from the ordinary flow of life. Furthermore, they were paradoxical. On the one hand, they alleviated Bill's anxiety by making him believe he was undertaking the tasks about which he was anxious. On the other hand, they heighten his anxiety when he woke to find he had failed to accomplish the tasks. In short, Bill was in a vicious cycle where the anxiety increased on each failure, leading to deeper dreaming to alleviate the problem, and so on. Bill did not follow all of this and asked,

"Wouldn't it be simpler if I just got up and went to work on time?"

The doctor was aware that Bill was a perfect subject for study. He knew from his questions that Bill was unemployed, lived alone, and had few prospects for work unless something was done about his dreaming. While it was true that Bill was unlikely to have a high intellect, he was, nevertheless, within the normal curve for the observations the doctor wanted to make. The doctor proposed that Bill move into his clinic for a few weeks. Drawing on his foundation funding, the doctor was sure that he could give Bill a per diem to cover all of his expenses including rent. The doctor thought he could do this without compromising the reliability of his research. Bill agreed to move into the sleep lab for a few weeks. What have I got to lose? Bill thought.

It took Bill three false starts in the world of his dreams before he managed to arrange for a neighbor to take in his mail. He now knew that he was asleep if his reflection's eyes were closed. This did not help much. Even when he knew he was asleep, he was unable to wake himself. He tried to prick himself with a pin. He turned the radio in his dream studio-apartment to maximum volume. He had no choice but to wait until he woke naturally. He found himself thumbing through a magazine, sorting his laundry, or looking out of the window at people walking their dogs in the park.

When he finally made it to the sleep lab, he decided this could not go on. He was happy to lie on the comfortable examination couch. The room was warm and he felt perfectly comfortable in the thin cellular blanket and cotton examination gown. The doctor placed a plastic helmet on Bill's head with wires running across the room to a variety of machines. The doctor fiddled with knobs and dials. One machine pumped out a thin stream of paper with wavy lines traced along it. Bill fell asleep.

Bill never woke again. The doctor recorded active alpha waves and evidence of REM sleep. The doctor made a series of observations of breathing and heart rate but was unable to wake Bill. In time, Bill was fed a liquid diet and nursed like a comma patient. The doctor tried everything he knew. He published articles on Bill in popular and serious journals. For a while the doctor and his patient became quite famous. There was even a short piece in the color section of the New York Times. Years went by and Bill was forgotten by the public. The doctor remembered though. He refused to take positions offered to him in other institutions. He felt he was somehow to blame for what happened to Bill. Whenever he could, he would go in to see Bill in a side room of Cornell's wing for experimental patients.

As for Bill, he dreamed that he woke from a long satisfied sleep. The doctor said all Bill needed was a good long rest. Everything would be all right now. He went back to his studio and collected his mail which did not include a single bill. Next morning he woke bright and fresh and decided to visit the lumber yard. He missed the smell of saw-dust and working was important. The boss said that he would take him on again because he had a big order and Bill was a good worker. Bill was never late again.

Early one Sunday morning, Bill met a woman about his age walking her dog on the big lawn in Prospect Park. Bill plucked up courage and asked if she would like to join him for coffee at Cousin John's on Seventh Avenue. She agreed. A romance blossomed. A few months later she and the dog moved into his studio overlooking the very park where they met. It was a little cramped but they did not grumble. Things had turned out well. He was not given to much introspection, but he would sometimes pause and look at himself in the mirror as he was leaving to go to work. He would wonder for a moment what would it be like if his reflection's eyes were open. He closed the door softly so as not to disturb his companion.