Lengthy Poem Contest

Napping Nathan
by Mark Henderson


The setting: a movie theater
in a small town, decades ago.

Nathan Abernathy was going
on his fortieth year working there.
He’d already worked with the children
of the summer-jobbers who were
there when he’d started. Their parents
had warned them against panicking should
they open one of the storage closets
and find him sleeping while standing up—
especially should they catch him at
that startling moment when he’d
suddenly reanimate and bolt
straight out, broom and dustpan in hand,
to sweep up the second a theater had emptied.

He’d liked sweeping up after
and running the projector best.
He could do both either sleeping
or awake. It’s all he’d ever wanted.

They’d called him Narcoleptic Nathan,
but that wasn’t it. He just really
liked to nap. And not just the typical
two or three hours in the early
afternoon. If he didn’t have
anything important or enjoyable to do,
he’d simply go to sleep. No sense in
being awake for boredom and anxiety.
He’d stay awake more often when
life stopped being so hard.



Contrary to the fears of his
friends and acquaintances, suicide
had never interested him. Why
wastefully substitute a permanent
measure for a temporary one?
Sleep, after all, was a lot like death.
Just without the commitment.  
Waking up was a resurrection.
Or being born again, but with
all of the déjà vu moments
compressed into a single momentous
dose that sent you stumbling out of bed
or off the couch trying to remember
what your shoes look like. So long as there
were no dreams, the short-term oblivion
was practicing for death, and every
new awakening was the chance
at a new life. Provided that
nobody held you accountable
for the actions you’d slept on. 

Four hours awake then two hours
asleep—that had been his usual rhythm.
But two hours on and two hours off
was hardly out of the question.
He’d trained himself well, without drugs.
Like flipping a switch. The days would
bleed together, well outside of
the usual circadian rhythm.
Night versus day no longer mattered;
he’d ridden disorientation
like a favorite roller coaster.



Working to live was tricky, but
he’d managed it: in closets or
bathroom stalls while
the movies were playing,
even in the projection rooms
after he’d set up the reels, though
sometimes he would stay awake to watch.

Life had become so much like
the changing of movie scenes, with
hard cuts and soft fades in equal parts,
he’d given up on telling the difference.

Shower, then black. 
Checking his bank account, then black. 
On a date, reluctantly, then black. 
Having sex that didn’t at all live up to
watching so much porn, then black. 
Making monthly down payments on something exciting, black. 
Paying things off, taking them home,
getting tired of them, and selling them, black.  
Needing a change of scenery, so
taking time off to go on a road trip, black. 
Driving and somehow not having crashed, black. 
Arriving at his destination and realizing that
most places are the same anyway, black. 
At the wheel again, this time going home, black. 
Amazed that he’s still alive, black.

Different coworkers, different bosses,
different phases—all had blurred together
rapidly like the pages in
an old cartoonist’s misshapen flip-book.



The time had finally come for
Nathan to die. He’d slept through that too;
he’d gone in his sleep. Peacefully,
of course; again, he’d never been
the kind to suffer any worry,
even in the face of pain. One wonders
if those like Nathan, for all their
refusal to deal with the least
bit of hassle, are even conscious. 

It’s one of the great mysteries
of the universe. Consciousness,
that is. He’d never told anyone,
but Nathan had thought about it
constantly. It had exhausted him
almost as much as society
and responsibility.
He’d even dreamed about it.

Was he dreaming about it now? he wondered.
(“Wondered”? Is that even possible
at this point? He’s dead, isn’t he?)

The sensations (“sensations”?) are
close to what he had predicted:

If the complex protocols for
proper neuronal firing in
the mammalian prefrontal cortex
had evolved to that point with
the necessary organic
building blocks, could something similar—
complete with memory and
personality, however brief and gradual—
form again, if eons and light-years away
from the source of the individual’s death?
Could the functions of neurons, synapses,
and nerve endings be mimicked on
a cosmic scale, across and throughout
the known and unknown universe?



Just as impressions within his dreams
had been transient and obscure and
separated by oblivious
blackness, so were impressions now
(in…whatever this is) manifesting
so fresh and new as to be born
again each time, leaving the faintest
trace of collective race memory,
recognizing things but forgetting
their names and being content with not knowing.

Sometimes there was sight, sometimes there
was sound. Sometimes there was neither.
Just a feeling, an intuition.

Whereas the gaps between the impressions
left by his dreams had lasted seconds
or minutes, the lifespans of stars stretched
between these new ones. With time (“time”?),
they came to feel as ambiguously
brief as the ones from his dreams. And as
gradually as those eons had
come to feel like minutes and seconds,
those minutes and seconds came to feel
like less than the blinks of an eye;
and Nathan began to develop
something like a new memory—
enough to realize that how he’d
used to feel his body’s inner workings
(a gurgle in the stomach, a racing
of the heart, the twitch of a nerve
in his pinky toe) was now how he
was feeling planets, stars, solar systems, and galaxies.



But there was no fear—no matter how
incomprehensible the size,
force, or sheer spectacle of
a supernova or an event horizon.
Only curiosity, fascination.
He wasn’t experiencing
time and magnitude in the same way
anymore; both seemed to be expanding
and shrinking (simultaneously)
toward irrelevance. Even the cycle
of the universe’s contracting
back to zero before exploding
again (a theory, he remembered)
came to feel like new lungs, like breathing.

And the superimpositions
of others who had died came, passing
through him (and somehow having always
been him), sharing thoughts and memories
he’d once seen as alien, if not impossible.

What was happening to Nathan
would happen to everyone—pleasantly
distant and accepting, until
there’s nothing to sense but the gaps
in between, the impressions that had
dotted them condensed to a tremolo
so fast it becomes one infinitely
uniform and sustaining pulse—

like an old but smoothly running
film projector—the blissful hum of
nothingness that is everything.