"Sleeps" by Ella Schwalb

Ronnie was asleep with her head on the vegetable scale, just inside the doorway. Her arms were crossed along the edge of the table, and a few red plastic bags stuck out from beneath her bloated parka sleeve, flapping to announce themselves whenever a motorbike tottered by through the narrow street. Her brother sat on a short stool right outside, slumped and well-mittened. His lower lip hung, conducting the cold through blistered flaps of lipskin. He had leaned his big wooden spoon along the top rim of the hot oil drum, and even without the help of his stirring, the glossy chestnuts rattled gently, bedded in tiny, linty black coals like some igneous chestnut brew.

They had seen only three customers enter the grocery all day. Two had come in together, silent, looked at the shelf of detergents and then left. The third had spent a good while crouched low, face close to the root vegetables that were piled high in arena-style seating on the slanted surface in the produce corner. He looked hard, but didn’t touch anything to see underneath, or behind—until finally he chose a bunch of beets with drooping greens. He paid with exact change and carried the beets to his taxi around the corner (he was a driver), where he got into the backseat and lay down, hugging the beets to his chest. He left his service light on and a window cracked as an invitation to potential riders that they could wake him up and tell him their destination.

On the second floor, in the apartment above the grocery, Olin’s desk sat right up against the sliding doors to the sleeping porch. He pulled his bent feet out from under his thighs and shook them to the floor, a storm of competing pressure particles spun in tight knots and turned his skin practically inside out, loosening in waves as the pins and needles sank and settled. The pinch of the pins snapped his eyes open for a moment and he succeeded in reading another paragraph of the manual. But once the pangs subsided, his eyeballs dialed back into the heavy falling of his calves and feet and he had to be very deliberate to unstick himself from phrases, to pull the dream words off of the real words, his blinking matching the rhythm of the little hidden tweaks of his leg muscles. The last track of “Calypso Gold” was skipping in the kitchen.

Ronnie woke up and peeled her cold cheek off the metal. She picked up her heavy cat and took her to the vet. In the waiting room, Ronnie fell asleep with her elbows crammed between the armrests, her spine crunching under the tinkling music and hanging plants. On the examination table, the vet covered his ten fingers in the cat’s thick fur, felt her heartbeat and let his eyelids slide down. The cat wriggled slightly and then flattened, while the vet maintained contact. He leaned his forehead into the cat’s back and slept for a few minutes. He then picked the cat up, thumbs pressing into her belly paunch, and shuffled her back into the crate, which he handed to the nurse who was waiting in the doorway.

When Ronnie first moved to the city, she was carrying her duffel bag and a small plastic pouch of birdseed (a gift for her uncle from her father). Thirteen hours of fluorescent light on the train had left what felt like scratches on her eyeballs--she had hardly been able to blink for the whole trip. She ducked out of the station into wet night air. A taxi pulled towards her, and her scarf was falling away from her neck, and the driver took her bags, and when she asked her where she was going, Ronnie fell asleep right in her arms.

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