While You Were Sleeping
Over the last two years I’ve developed a habit of waking up in the middle of the night and completing a series of household chores. This baffles me since, by nature, I am not an overly tidy person. During the day I could care less about that sink full of dishes, or the spot of tomato sauce that’s curdled on the floor, but at precisely 3:30 in the morning I will spring out of bed, grab a utility knife from my toolbox and spend forty minutes scraping dirt off the linoleum floor. It’s as though an unknown spirit takes control of my body and guides me to the scene of something tragic, something I must make right, like my bathtub, where a ring of mold has formed around the drain. “Thank you,” I mumble, and then fall to my knees and scrub.
Unlike most people who wake up in the middle of the night and watch TV or surf the web in order to tire themselves back to sleep, I approach these chores with a sense of urgency. These are things I must do, and must do immediately, between the hours of three and four AM. I may be half-asleep and uncaffeinated, but somehow I have the presence of mind to re-spline a window screen and then walk outside to my Jeep, where I wash the license plate with Windex.
Strange patterns have emerged, motifs that tie together different chores. One night I cleaned my freezer, chiseling through layers of ice and uncovering packages of frozen vegetables that dated back to 2007. When I was done purging, all that remained was a single pint of ice cream. It was beautiful, this surviving bucket of Ben & Jerry’s, all by itself in the middle of a dark ice cave. The following night I grabbed a similarly shaped container of Spackle from my tool shelves. Then I used a putty knife to patch the screw holes in my bathroom ventilation grate. Months have passed since then and still whenever I see anything cylindrical, like a Yankee candle or a propane tank, I’m caught in a trance of déjà vu.
Many of these “spells” come on the heels of a dream. One moment I’m in the cockpit of a plane, piloted by my niece’s seventeen year-old boyfriend, the next moment I’m on my hands and knees on the kitchen floor, holding a tape measure, wondering if this particular tile has been discontinued. Is there a connection these two things? It’s hard to say. Once I’m awake my dreams quickly dissolve into a faded snapshot. I was caulking my bathtub at four in the morning when suddenly I stopped and began rolling the silicone sealant between my thumb and forefinger. “What is this?” I said. Then a vision came to me from that night’s dream: a faceless woman, wearing a cowboy hat and a surgical mask, squeezing a tube of fluoride paste into a mouth tray.
Like the Wolfman, who finds himself at sunrise on a park bench, barefoot and shirtless, I’ve woken up on the floor, or in the front hall, my fingernails caked with white paint or stained from WD-40. Further evidence of my shadowy housekeeping is strewn throughout my condo. “Something happened here,” I’ll say, standing in my kitchen like a psychic who’s brought in to a murder scene. The vibe gets stronger as I move toward the wall. I lean forward onto the balls of my feet and rise up on my tippy toes. “Yes, a little higher now. This feels right,” I say. Then I peer onto the tops of the picture frames and discover that they’ve been freshly dusted.
“There’s something strange going on at my house,” I told Steve, a fellow alcoholic, after my Tuesday night AA meeting. “Every morning I wake up at 3:30 and clean. I know I’m awake, but it doesn’t feel like me inside my head. It’s starting to freak me out, man. The other night my wife woke up and I was standing over the bed, holding a toilet brush. What if next time it’s a kitchen knife?”
Steve sipped his coffee and shrugged, and I immediately regretted telling him. How could I expect this guy to relate? He’s never dealt with a ghost before. In fact, since his wife left him, he’s been living out of his car, and I highly doubt a ghost would haunt a ’98 Mercury Sable. I changed the conversation back to him. “Anyway, enough about me. You were talking about your runaway daughter. Continue.”
“It’s just some light sleepwalking,” my wife contends, or at least she did until recently. Her attitude shifted a month ago when she too began falling under the same kind of spells. I woke up one night and found her standing on the bed, peeking behind my Goonies poster. “This is all wrong,” she whispered. A couple weeks later she was swiping her hand at the comforter, complaining about the centipedes. Her creepiest vision came just last week, when she woke me up to inform me that a crab was crawling out of my left ear. Even more disturbing was the casual manner in which she told me. “Be sure it doesn’t lay any eggs in your head,” she said, half asleep, as though reminding me to turn off the living room light. By the time I finished dousing my face with bug spray, she was snoring.
Though she admits it’s doubly bizarre that this strange behavior afflicts both of us, she still shrugs it off as benign. “Who knows? People do weird things when they sleep.” Even when I ask about the unexplained bruise on her calf that appeared one morning, she chalks it up to a common iron deficiency in females.
“Do other women get bruises shaped like a small child’s mouth?” I said, pointing at it. “With teeth marks, too?”
She claims I watch too many scary movies, and that my imagination gets carried away. This is true, but still, isn’t that how this story always goes? Nobody believes the main character until the end, when it’s too late and the entire house is overrun with translucent longhaired people dressed in Civil War costumes. “Does this seem like the work of a demon?” she says, gesturing toward our freshly painted baseboard trim. “I’ve heard of people committing murder because the voices told them to do it, but what kind of ghost drives a person to scrub his shower with calcium remover?”
“The kind with self-respect,” I say, as though it’s obvious. “Maybe the ghost was a maid. Maybe it had obsessive-compulsive disorder. Maybe there was a murder, and the killer spent the night cleaning up the mess. Whatever it was, something terrible happened in this house at 3:30 in the morning. And while it was happening, they were listening to NPR, which is why I keep turning the volume up on the stereo every night.”
“That makes sense,” Amanda said, typing something into her phone, possibly an email to a psychiatric hospital. She grabbed her gym bag, took one last look around the apartment and, deeming it free of sharp objects, left for her spin class.
The old me would have simply accepted a poltergeist in my home, the same way I accepted my mustard-colored clapboard siding. For ten years my house looked as though it had been painted with turkey gravy, but now that I’m sober I’ve made a conscious effort to upgrade it. This summer I hired a contractor to install new siding. I haven’t heard from him since he cashed my deposit check, two months ago, but the wheels are in motion. I’m confident that one day his crew will show up and I’ll return from work to a house that no longer looks condemned.
The ability to deal with things in a confident and composed manner is one of the many gifts of working a twelve-step program. In the last three years I’ve gained the coping skills required to sit in traffic, navigate the rough patches of a marriage, and live with a nagging bacterial skin infection. Now that list includes warding off a supernatural entity.
I began my paranormal investigation with Google, a tool that, in the past, has helped prove the existence of basically anything that wanders through my twisted mind. My first search, “ghost possession and household chores”, brought me to a Boston University graduate dissertation about a Swahili cult. Apparently spirit possession was used to domesticate tribal women in 19th century Zanzibar. Since I gleaned all this from the title alone, there was no need to read the actual thesis. Next I clicked on a link titled “Symptoms of Ghost Possession” and landed on the Spiritual Research Foundation’s website. The first paragraph contained a startling statistic: nearly 30% of all people are in some way possessed by a ghost. Satisfied, I closed my laptop and texted Amanda. Guess what. This kind of shit’s been happening for hundreds of years, and there’s a 1 in 3 chance it’s a ghost. You’re welcome.
Equipped with sufficient proof, it was time to involve the church. I happen to know a priest, someone I met fifteen years ago at a soup kitchen. He mistook me as homeless and offered me his phone number. "The parish is always open if you ever feel desperate and need someone to talk to," he said.
“Thanks," I said, "but I don't think I'll need this". I explained that I was actually there as a volunteer, part of my office's outreach initiative, and that my life was in a really good place. Still I called him three days later, high on cocaine, and asked if he had any connections in Los Angeles. After that we spoke every six months or so, either late at night or early in the morning, depending on the kind of drugs I’d ingested. The last time I reached out was five years ago while hallucinating on mushrooms. I left a rambling voicemail about the existence of God and how I'd no longer have the need for shoes.
We hadn’t spoken since I got clean, so it pleased him to learn I was still alive, not to mention sober and married. His delight turned to suspicion, however, once I told him I was possessed by a demon, and asked if he could perform an exorcism.
“The church has a strict decree about this sort of thing. Unless your life is in immediate danger, there’s nothing I can do,” he said. Apparently ghosts are granted the same legal protection as stalkers or estranged lovers. As long as they don't violate any restraining orders they’re free to haunt whomever they please.
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll remember that when my soul is being torn apart in hell.”
The priest sighed. “Okay, Danny. If it is something supernatural, my involvement might only make it worse. It’s looking for validation, so the more you feed into it, the more real it becomes. I suggest you ignore it. Instead of engaging with it, try connecting with God through prayer. Do that, and the ghost will lose interest.”
This was a boring plan. I had hoped for something a little more spectacular, like the two of us huddled around an ancient book, reading together in Latin while the doors blew open and my condo filled with streams of blue fire. Instead I got the kind of advice my doctor gives when I ask for a pill that cures fatigue. I expect him to reach into a case and hand me a vial of glowing liquid, but instead all I get is: “Eat right, get enough sleep, and exercise”.
Even so, I thought it prudent to furnish my condo with two crucifixes, one for the living room and one for the bedroom. This way God’s protection could beam from both ends of the unit, like my air conditioners. I went on Amazon, typed in “wooden crosses” and found an infinite supply in all sizes and materials. Then I remembered the old myth about vampires and holy water, so I retyped “blessed wooden crosses”. Again, the results were plentiful. I bought two crucifix-and-rosary combo packs, blessed by Pope Francis in 2013, for sixteen bucks each. Now the “recently purchased” section of my Amazon profile reads: vintage Trapper Keeper notebook, DVD of the movie Cobra, wooden crucifix blessed by the Pope.
The next day my package arrived. “This is just temporary, right?” Amanda said as she watched me take down the oil painting that hung on our bedroom wall, the one her mother gave us for Christmas, and replace it with a gaudy crucifix made of composite wood and bronze.
“I hope so,” I said. “Here. Wear this.” I placed a rosary around her neck, a gesture that mimicked an Olympic ceremony. It was as though Amanda had won a gold medal in the sport of Catholicism. “Just for tonight. See if it makes any difference.”
We lay in bed that night and watched The Office, our matching rosary beads draped around our necks. Amanda fell asleep after fifteen minutes, but I stayed up to watch another episode, feeling obligated to entertain our new roommate, Jesus. During the funny scenes I imagined him, nailed to the cross, howling with laughter and thanking me for the much needed distraction.
For the first time in months I slept peacefully throughout the entire night. At 7:30 the next morning I woke up to the sound of someone knocking.
“Who’s at the door?” I said, but Amanda was still asleep.
Again the knock. Not from the door, though. It came from inside the bedroom wall.
“Amanda,” I said, pushing her shoulder. Nothing. I sat up in bed, looking around the room, waiting for the sound. Just as I lay back down it came, three violent knocks this time, so forceful that the crucifix fell from the wall and landed facedown on the floor.
“It’s happening,” I said softly, and then my condo began to shake. The knocking returned along with it, louder and from all directions. I pictured a thousand ghastly fists pounded on the walls outside. Mixed into the clamor was a screeching voice, speaking fast, yelling something in a foreign language.
Now Amanda was up. “What the hell is that?” she said.
“Get dressed!” I cried. I ran to the living room. The crucifix that hung from that wall now lay flat on the floor. Through the windows I glimpsed dark figures, hovering, waiting to invade my condo and devour my soul. I picked the crucifix off the floor, ran back through the kitchen, unlocked the back door, flung it open and then screamed.
Standing there was a Latino woman wearing a black cowboy hat. Her face was smooth but her eyes were cracked with age. The early morning light formed a halo around her body. She said nothing, only smiled at me and gave me a quick bow. The demon, masquerading as an angel of light. My reckoning had come. I wanted to warn Amanda, tell her to run down the stairs, but I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t move. I knew it was too late, anyway.
The woman tilted her head back and looked up at the sky. “Shh,” she said. Then she yelled something in Spanish, and the pounding stopped. She reached her arms into the air, and when she brought them down she held a large piece of rotted wood. She turned and threw the wood over the side of my deck. A moment later it crashed on the ground, and she turned back to me. “Okay,” she said, and disappeared down my back steps.
I walked out on the back deck, in my boxer shorts, and looked up. Three men were on the roof, speaking to each other in Spanish. They wore tool belts and work gloves. Standing on a ladder was a fourth man, prying a chunk of siding off my house. He saw me and nodded. I walked back inside to the living room and looked out the window. There were more workers at the front of the house, high up on scaffolding, using hammers and crowbars to peel off old clapboard. On the sidewalk was a foreman, pointing at places, shouting things. Behind him were two trucks, their doors reading NAIL-IT HOME IMPROVEMENT.
After two months, my exterior siding project had finally begun.
* * * *
Dr. Feldman does not believe in demons, at least not the ones that talk backwards and smell like rotten meat. According to his professional psychoanalytic opinion, I am haunted by the ghosts of my past. These ghosts cannot move objects, and they don’t quarrel over my soul, but they are real, “damaging,” as he puts it.
I ask if, by ghosts of the past, he’s referring to people who died when I was young. My grandmother, for instance. Or Mindy, my family’s cockapoo. “The dog, maybe,” I say, “but I’m pretty sure nana always liked me.”
He clarifies. “No. I’m talking about traumatic incidents or relationships, things that inform your behavior as an adult. These can be much more debilitating than a spirit up in the attic.”
I think of my father yelling at me, when I was six, for peeling the corner of the dining room wallpaper. My dad was a scary guy, but I imagine that’s nothing compared to waking up with a pentagram carved into my abdomen.
“So why am I waking up at the same time each night and cleaning my house?” I ask.
His answer is simple and confident. Anxiety. “You’re getting ready to sell your condo. You’re worried about the future. You’re overwhelmed with everything that’s going on—work, marriage, buying and selling a home, Crohn’s Disease, writing, sobriety—and something in you feels the compulsive need to get things done. You can’t relax, or else it will all fall apart. That lack of trust, I guarantee, can be traced back to your formative years.”
He says that since I fall asleep at roughly eleven o’clock every night, my third REM cycle would regularly end at around 3:30. Scientifically speaking, this is the time when people’s sleep is at its lightest. “And your subconscious is telling you to move. Or in this case, fix up the house.”
The shrink suggests that my wife has similar anxieties. Hers manifest in different ways. Instead of cleaning, she kills bugs. Two nights ago she woke up, grabbed a charcuterie board from the kitchen, and used it to swat imaginary flies.
I ask what I can do. Maybe a sleeping pill, or a Chinese herb, or a Native American sweat lodge. “Try ten minutes of meditation before you go to sleep,” he says. “Maybe scale back on your caffeine intake.”
“I’ll try that,” I say, but all I can think of is, You’re in on it. You’re one of them.
It has been less than twelve hours since the shrink appointment, but I can barely recall it, as though it were the faint residue of a dream. I hear him murmuring somewhere in the back of my mind, saying something about anxiety and stress management. But his voice fades out as I walk through the kitchen and into the living room. I don’t think I’m sleeping; after all, I’m cognizant enough to see the clock. It reads 3:33 AM. I look around the room and notice something in the corner, under the lamp: an ungainly mess of Ethernet cable, tangled together with a modem and a wireless router. The area is covered in dust bunnies and tumbleweeds of cat hair. A trail of them lead under the sofa. My heart begins to race.
I close my eyes. “Thank you,” I say. “It shall be done.”
And then I get to work.
Daniel Pellegrini is a recovering drug addict with an aggressive form of chronic bowel disease. That means he can't take painkillers after undergoing rectal surgery. He's here to show you just how beautiful life is.
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