Houston Insomnia

by Stephanie Dickinson

* Texas Street *

4:00 a.m. on Houston’s Texas Street and in the depot you’ve staggered into carrying your red patent leather hatbox that’s been riding all night from Austin through the vastness of Texas. Sunday, left hours ago, has reached blue Monday and the magnolias still open are already closing—a thickness you can swallow—the sullied odor of a too-sweet sock. Bus women shift in the peach orchards of sleep, their rope-tied suitcases like cypress knees under their feet. He walks toward you: wide-awake, tall, late twenties, not handsome, not ugly. Dressed in black jeans, a tee, a good-looking antelope-colored suede jacket. The janitors have returned from their break and lift the long poles of their mops, the greasy eels drowned in Pine Sol. He’s come looking for a match to light his cigarette. In the depot no one complains of second-hand-smoke. He’s looking for the easy ones he can talk into his ride parked outside. Surely, he already knows the ones to approach, the ones who never learned to say no, who wear tight clothes, the fatherless ditch girls who move to the city to be noticed, the ones already damaged (i.e., like you).


*  Newports *

He drops into the chair next to you,  an unlit cigarette behind his ear. He lights a Newport, offers you one from a pack. You take it. “Where you heading?” he asks.

“I’m here. Houston is my destination. What about you?”

“Nowhere.” He flicks his ashes with a long fingernail. He suffers from insomnia and comes here to the depot when he can’t sleep. “What do you do?” he asks. You tell him you’re a teacher. Not that you’re a lover of books and strong coffee, of fruity words dipped into rose petals and the wet red of a girl’s lips against the white stem of her throat, paragraphs scribbled in the dialect of flesh. You don’t tell him this job is our first after getting your MFA in poetry. To teach the profoundly retarded at a private school, a Master of Fine Arts will do. “A teacher,” he repeats. “What do you teach?” Laughing, he looks at your matador pants and heels. His eyes, the color of amaretto, they forget something; they travel you up and down.

The ladies room is up an open staircase, its banister a grillwork lattice of 1920s elegance.  You explain you were visiting friends in Austin over the weekend.  You’ll change clothes in the bathroom and go straight from here to work. You start at 7:00 a.m.

The Center for the Retarded on West Dallas. Google it and you’ll discover it recently changed its politically incorrect name.

Screen Shot 2013-11-26 at 10.32.05 AM

* Parallel Universe *

He asks if you get high. “You have enough time,” he says with a watch glance. “Let’s go to my place and then I’ll drive you to work.” The lure of crystal. A South African diamond. A conifer singing to the sunrise. You let him swing your red patent hatbox over his shoulder and follow him out into the last of the charcoaly night. The icehouse dregs where the men and women watching for dawn switch from beer to coffee. The Houston sky waits for that first blaze of hot blue.  75 percent humidity and 102 degrees by the Allied Chemical Bank.

He unpockets his car keys, and crosses the street. “By the way,” he says, “I’m Larry.”

Not Lawrence. Not Leonardo. Not Layton. Larry.

In a parallel universe, which physicists postulate there could be millions of, the car still exists, as you do, the 25-year-old who should know better. Nothing mathematically prevents it. Perhaps Larry has a different, richer name there—Lionel or Leopold. In that universe the girl who is you passes the aqua-painted storefronts and empty lots, the nine-foot fence where homeless men nursing beer quarts lean, that girl walks past the rib shack, its pit cookers sizzling breakfast brisque, and keeps going.

* Liz *

Monday’s exhausted classroom of the profoundly retarded with autistic overlays lies before you. A week of preteens in diapers, none able to speak, some hum the music of drool, others groan and giggle. There are other teachers like you. Single. Imports from the North. The clean ones like Faye Fish you love right away. With the dirty ones the love takes longer. Like Andrew Dickey, the doctor’s son suffering brown lice in his eyebrows, who lives in a locked room at his father’s manicured River Oaks home. Theresa in her upside down sunglasses. Liz, a cretin, welded into blue stretch pants and drool-soured pink turtleneck. Hair is her poetry, her drug, her sex, her fascination. Her transcendence. Why the gleam in her deep blue eyes when she stretches a single strand of your long hair between her fingers? What is it Liz sees? A tiramisu stallion? Leaf shadow? Sweeping the floor with her fingers, she collects hair. Her head’s half-bare but for baby-fine wisps of chick-yellow. All her life she’s pulled out her hair, playing with it, tasting it. Blue eyes like dark violet pools of water, startlingly beautiful. How stunning Liz is in the parallel universe where her brain awakens, her thoughts like moth wings, and her hair’s a waterfall. Not crouching on all fours, as she scours the floor for hair prey. A long dead day ahead in the universe of soiled diapers and puzzles no student can master.

glowing viewfinder

*5:00 a.m.*

He fits the key in the ignition and a woman on the radio sings in a thick voice like a pillow that wants to pull you into papaya and mango, the sweet sob of the tropics—orange too orange, green that tastes pink. The street where you live flashes past and he begins to whistle a birdsong of perfect white incisors. On Westheimer the sun is the color of a flesh wound. Like the hummingbird thrumming of your heart in love with the interstate’s jitter. Cleveland Drive. Washington. Jefferson. Streets named after gone presidents where fists of men—Mexicans, Guatemalans, Columbians—line up for day labor. Dawn-strong roosters but after a day in the sun pounding nails, they’ll shrivel red-pink like the bleeding heart flowers on your grandmother’s farm, their muscle-stems trembling in the sweat rag of 5:00 p.m. Houston, the most air-conditioned city on earth. Gateway to hell. Elevators high as skyscrapers, prefabricated apartments, thrown up, flash and scurry by. Everywhere there’s construction, a hunger for walls, sliding glass patio windows, queen-sized mattresses slabbed between plywood bones.

Lamar Drive past the strip shopping centers and Used Auto Parts where you’ve forever arriving in the gutlessness beyond the Dunkin Donuts and dusty magnolia trees. “I live here with my sister,” he says. Two tiers of apartments painted brown and thrown up around a parking lot. Box air conditioners hum from each unit. Azaleas snuggle against aluminum window frames. A baby is crying as you climb the stairs.

She’s sitting at the round kitchen table nursing her son when the two of you walk in. A young woman with espresso-colored curls glances up. Her visible breast—a fallen fruit where her baby smacks his milk and claims her as first food. She’s taken one look and without a word to her brother (or boyfriend or husband) starts packing: tote, diaper bag, car seat. Jars of Gerber skitter over the Formica of the dinette, strained carrots and beets, apple sauce, thud. You listen to her disappearing into the boom city of grain elevators and icehouses, of glass towers glinting like enchanted kingdoms.

* Confirmation *

He opens the refrigerator and reaches in the butter slot for baggies nestled in white rice. You flip through the Houston Chronicle. A beautiful eight-year-old girl in her confirmation dress touched the third rail of a train. “Come on, let’s go party in the bathroom,” he says.

* Red & Black Bathroom *

The bathroom is luminous: blue projection lamps glow cool as pool lighting, dried orchid petals litter the black sink and vanity. You’ve never seen a black bathtub, especially one where rubber ducks and squeeze toys frolic in its depths. The toilet lid and tissue dispenser adorn themselves in burgundy fur. He takes out a hand mirror, a bouquet of golden flowers enameled on its back, scrapes methadrine with a razor blade; it’s damp and crumbles like gum eraser no matter how fine he chops it. Dividing it while you moisten your lips and bat your eyes not at him but at it, he tells you to kneel. Bible verses begin to float through your mind. You notice the sponge duck’s webby feet. The toilet seat and Kleenex dispenser begin to sweat under their furs of red. Likewise, when they had killed the rams, they sprinkled the blood up the altar. Kneeling before the mirror and black sink, under the racked lighting, kneeling for the prize that makes your heart race, how glitter-sharp its edges. In purgatory you’ll kneel forever in the forbidden thick red carpet, in the scarlet blood of too-salty beets. On the mirror the taste of cat urine and yellow apples. The roots in your teeth quiver. In the parallel universe of goodness you’re not bowing your head over the mirror, pressing the last taste of yellow into your gums, sucking the bitterness from your thumb. Over the razor blade’s edge your grandmother’s in the farmhouse kitchen making strudel, draping  rolled-out dough long as cheesecloth over the table, chopping the orchard apples with raisins and walnuts and cinnamon. When your grandmother looks up, you hide yourself. 


* Box Room *

He’s led you into room where his sister stores her college textbooks; he wants to show you the beige carpet and cardboard boxes, the peculiar room with a door that bolts from the outside. When he leaves to get his cigarettes you try to follow him and discover he’s locked you in. Left alone you think it’s a joke.  You read titles. The Aztecs and the Making of Mexico. Red Star Over China.  He returns dressed only in a hooded Joseph’s robe of many colors—woven grapes and maroons and dark blues. Was it Israel who adored Joseph more than his other sons, because he was the child of his old age? There’s an ashen shine to his knees as if he’d rolled in Lent ashes. For this reason I fall on my knees before the Father.

He’s brought you a Coke, to ease the hard ball of spit from your lips. He’s still wearing his robe of many colors. He doesn’t want to see your face. Not this Lancelot or Lazarus. When he touches you – word pictures of chokecherries, mayflies, of wasps stinging cicadas and burying them in the dirt for their larvae to feed on, of plate glass shattering, used salvage, tacos el carbon and lard. He finishes and leaves you to the walls. Pressed sawdust. To the sounds of the overpass, traffic high on the girders splashing through. In the classroom they must be missing you now that the afternoon sun is starting its climb down to the horizon. It’s time to take the students out to sit under the magnolia trees, the leaves, dry and flat as lunch sacks. Footsteps shuffle in the living room. A key turns, someone closes a window. Is it his sister? You rattle the door. Locked. Gaetano Mosca’s The Ruling Class. Every generation produces a certain number of generous spirits who are capable of loving all that is. You imagine the sister sits at the plywood dinette with her son, cooing the name Wand, soft breeze over the place mats.  Night.  Thirst. You fall into a sleep he wakes you from. Not Lewis. Not Lathrop. Larry. You hear your breaths, quick little pants like puffs of a light cigarette, and your fingers still burning. A day later you’ll walk through the empty living room outside into the parking lot’s explosion of sun. Looking back you’ll not recognize the you as the first person singular. One of your divided selves.

About the author

Stephanie Dickinson was raised on an Iowa farm now lives in New York City. Her novel Half Girl and novella Lust Series are published by Spuyten Duyvil.  Other works include the short story collections Road of Five Churches and Port Authority Orchids. Her story “A Lynching in Stereoscope” was reprinted in Best American Nonrequired Reading and “Dalloway and Lucky Seven” and “Love City” in New Stories from the South. Her chapbook essayHeat: An Interview with JeanSeberg will appear in late 2013 from New Michigan Press.   

About the artist

Coral Staley has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction but is too busy with her two boys to give writing much thought these days. She does, however, find time to paint and considers it another form of creative nonfiction.



  1. Stephanie, I’ve loved everything we’ve published here, but this one may be my favorite. It’s so personal and the language is so haunting.

    And Coral, these images are fantastic. I hope you’ll illustrate more stories in the future.

    You ladies made my week. Thank you.

  2. Pingback: Happy Birthday to Us! | Tell Us a Story

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