M a r c h   2 0 0 4

Guest Writer

Are you getting this?
Sleep Lab
by Kristin Hilton

here was a terrible smell to the sheets on the bed in the Sleep Lab. Cheryl thought it smelled like sterilized pickles – rubbing alcohol and vinegar.

Cheryl's job (well, one of them) was to make the bed every morning after the Study Participant had gotten up and was gone to the Morning Results Exam and coffee/muffin buffet. Cheryl was good at making the bed. She stripped the used sheets off the hospital-issue mattress and threw them into the wheeled laundry basket in the corner. She flipped the pillows out of their cases in one jerk. She checked all the linens for Non-Allowable Items, such as cigarettes, pills, inhalers and the like.

If the sheets or pillowcases were soiled, she checked the "Pre-Laundry Lab" box on the tag of the basket; if not, she marked "No Visible Residues." It was a "No Visible Residues" day. She checked the box and pushed the basket into the hall where Debbie, the janitor, would find it and take it to the Pre-Laundry Lab.

Debbie was a short woman and – what was the word that Cheryl's mother would have used? Dumpy. The word would imply, maybe, that she looked like a human version of a bag of garbage? Was that the idea? To make her into something disgusting and unclean? Something people would throw out? She, Cheryl, had been called dumpy by her mother, yes, many times in high school.

Well, Debbie was the dumpy one here.

Cheryl was finished pulling all the linens off the bed. She unlocked a particleboard cupboard in the corner of the Sleep Lab that was stocked with clean sheets and disinfectant spray. She pulled on a pair of surgical gloves and began to spray the top and sides of the mattress with disinfectant. The mist that came out of the bottle smelled like the sheets; Cheryl had described it to her roommate as "pickleized." As in, "that damn spray, you oughta smell it, I swear it's doing something wrong to the inside of my nose. I think my mucous membranes are being pickleized."

Sean, her roommate, didn't like to hear about the Sleep Lab. He always said "shhh, shhh," after a minute of fake listening. He didn't like to have anything interrupt the TV. Cheryl knew that if he didn't need her share of the rent money, he would have kicked her out six months ago when she had accidentally turned off Matlock while Sean was taking a bathroom break. He had been really mad because, as he'd said, turning off Matlock was by far no freaking accident.

The disinfectant spray was a thick cloud. Cheryl didn't like the smell of it, but she was sure it must be working in its own foul way to destroy throngs of invisible germs. She felt a gag, but kept her vinyl-gloved hand over her nose and mouth and continued to coat the entire mattress. When she was finished, she turned on the hidden ceiling fan and went into the hall for air.

"Any Visible Residues today?" A tall man was out in the hallway, looking down into the laundry basket. He wore a white doctor's coat and a tag that read "Dr. M. P. Cummings."

"No, thank God!" Cheryl said.

"Merrill, this week's study depends on Visible Residues. In other words, we want Visible Residues, Merrill, because then we know the On-Site Medication is working. And if the On-Site Medication is working, then we get to keep working, Merrill, and we get to keep receiving a pay envelope every week."

Cheryl knew when Dr. Cummings said "we" he meant "you." Just you, Merrill, because you're the only one that doesn't really matter around here. The Study Participant matters, oh yes, he or she matters very much. He or she matters so much that now we want all traces of urine, vomit, semen, saliva or other conceivable excretion.

And me – of course I matter, Merrill, because I'm the Medical Doctor. Even though I'm balding and the top of my head is covered with liver-spot-like freckles, and although it is true that the shape of my nose in profile is somewhat like a long, thin pear and in this way perfectly matches my flaccid body, I matter because I'm the one who's trained to see all observable signs or results of the On-Site Medication doing what it's supposed to do, Merrill, Merrill, Merrill …

Cheryl blinked and saw Dr. Cummings leaning toward her, a crease of irritation folding the skin between his wispy eyebrows.

"What is the On-Site Medication supposed to be doing?" Cheryl asked.

Dr. Cummings wagged his finger. "You can't ask me that, Merrill. Or rather, I can't answer that. It is your job to observe the Study Participant, note your observations on Form 4B, and allow me, the Medical Doctor, to worry about what the medication is or is not doing."

Dr. Cummings continued to talk, but Cheryl had again stopped listening. She knew she shouldn't ask about the On-Site Medication but, holy crap, the Study Participant had been screaming all night in his sleep. Screaming and dancing on the mattress with his eyes closed. Not that Dr. Cummings would know.

He was supposed to be with Cheryl in the Observation Area 45 minutes out of every hour that the Study Participant was in the Sleep Room, but he usually put in about 15 minutes and went off down the hall, ostensibly for a drink of water or to use the bathroom. He might or might not return for the last half-hour of the Sleep Session, but usually not.

Cheryl knew he was in the janitorial closet with Debbie every night. She'd seen him knock on the closet door and seen Debbie open it and pull him inside.

The thought of them in there, pushed up against shelves of toilet paper, doing it to the tune of rattling mop handles, made Cheryl's skin itch. She knew that the air in the closet had to smell like the disinfectant she sprayed on the Sleep Lab mattress every day. Clouds of the stuff probably floated across the ceiling. She couldn't help but imagine Cummings waking up one morning and discovering that his penis had shriveled to a tiny, hard twig. World-renowned doctors would examine it in amazement. "It's a most bizarre case," they would say. "It's almost as if this poor sap's unit has been, well, pickleized!"

Dr. Cummings was still talking, ignorant of the fact that his unit was in danger of pickleization.

"I've got to go put the new sheets on the mattress," Cheryl said, and he waved her away.

"When you're done, come into the Observation Area – we'll go over the notes."

They would go over her notes and he would use them to write a slightly more detailed Medical Summary that was supposed to be based on the Medical Doctor's own, personal observations. This was why Cummings, the Medical Doctor, got paid 10 times more than Cheryl – the Lab Observator.

Cummings carried around a laminated, playing-card-sized copy of his degree in his wallet. Sometimes he took it out and showed it to Cheryl when he was trying to make a point about people wasting their lives making minimum wage, changing sheets when they should be in school, or doing anything at all but spending nights here and then trudging home in their big, thick shoes to crash in their mildewy apartment beds.

Cheryl went back into the Sleep Lab and turned off the fan. The room still smelled of pickles. Why couldn't they get a different kind of disinfectant? There had to be one that didn't stink to high heaven like a deli sandwich. One that smelled like oranges would be nice. Cheryl liked the smell of oranges – it reminded her of a vacation to Disneyland when she was 10.

Disneyland itself had been horrible. In what universe was it not creepy to have giant, polyester cartoon characters follow you up and down streets where all the windows of the castles and cottages and "olde shoppes" were blank and flat because there were no real rooms behind them?

Disneyland had smelled dirty and there were too many people, all pushing and shouting and smiling and, like the windows of the buildings, flat and empty. Her mother had yelled "What's wrong with you, child? It's Disneyland, for crap's sake! I better see some smiling and not that look on your fat face like you smelled something bad!"

So Cheryl had smiled. But she hated it.

On the way up California, at the end of the vacation, they had toured an orange grove called King Sun Orange World. The air smelled juicy. Cheryl got lost in the rows of trees, eating oranges, running around like crazy because the smell of the oranges floated her along on a river of sunshine. She forgot what happened next. Well, her mother had found her, obviously, and brought her home and that was that. Here she was still, in rainy country, 20 years later. She took a set of sheets, sealed in a plastic bag, out of the cupboard and locked the cupboard door.

Inside the plastic, the sheets and pillowcases were folded white squares of flattened origami. Cheryl unwrapped the white fitted sheet and opened it like the pages of a book. She shook it out and watched it settle, floating slowly down. She pulled the elastic corners over the mattress, taking care that the center crease was directly down the middle of the bed and that the squared pattern of folds was straight and even on all sides.

The Data Secure camera in a corner of the ceiling watched her and she knew it. Maybe later, when the Data Secure people were reviewing the footage from the Sleep Room and comparing it to that night's Form 4B, they would see the bed as it was now, a grid of centered creases and, perhaps as a comment on her work, they would give her the Performance Salary Upgrade. Maybe she would even be a "featured employee" in the SSI Sentinel as a way of noticing how she went the extra mile, really, and was always striving to do Sleep Study International a big solid. A reward for the always-squared sheets, pinched and tucked, pulled flat and perfect even when they would be rolled on, clawed and drooled on, ruined every day anew.

The Study Participant might trash the bed, chew the pillows, suffocate an orgasmic flood in the white cotton but she, Cheryl, would always keep a close, unsleeping watch over the destruction and put it to rights in the morning.

She finished with the sheets.

Dr. Cummings was waiting for her in the Observation Area. He was already riffling through the stack of 4Bs, jotting down his own version of Cheryl's notes on the Medical Summary form.

"Have you finally finished the sheets, Merrill?" he said. "You take an unusually long time, you know."

Cheryl stared through the two-way mirror into the Sleep Lab. There was the bed wrapped in tight, white cotton – a square box – a wedding gift waiting to be unwrapped.

"But it looks good," she said. Cummings snorted through his long nose.

He launched into a lecture about Cheryl as a "classic underachiever wasting unconscionable amounts of energy on meaningless tasks." He began to flip through the pages of Cheryl's notes with a deep frown that seemed sunk into all the lines of his face. His index finger kept tapping the edge of the stack of papers. "Sloppy," he muttered with every tap. He looked up.

"I find your method of note-taking sloppy, Merrill," he said. "What does this passage mean, Merrill: 'Study participant screaming. Duration: 10 minutes.'?"

"That he was screaming for 10 minutes and then he stopped."

Dr. Cummings was disappointed, obviously. Well, be disappointed, doctor, Cheryl thought, if you're so superior.

"Yes, the obvious facts are clear, Merrill, but there is no detail, is there? I.E., what kind of screaming? High pitched or low pitched? How loud? A scream of pain or fright or something else? Were there breaks within the 10 minutes of screaming, or was it a continuous action on the part of the subject? Details, Merrill! These are important questions. Important to me and important to the manufacturer of the On Site Medication."

At this comment, Cheryl almost leaped on him.

Oh, important enough to lecture her about, but not important enough for him to actually be here, in the Observation Area, where he was supposed to be, watching the Study Participant as he was supposed to do! Cheryl felt that she was about to say something. Her mouth was opening and closing, words were coming into her mind and they weren't very nice words.

It seemed to her that her eyes must be blazing and that if Dr. Cummings looked at her right now, he would see these blazing eyes and feel her righteous indignation and perhaps even be moved to beg her forgiveness and promise, heretofore, to always stay in the Observation Area and complete his Medical Summary honestly, from his own notes.

Cheryl waited for him to look up, but his eyes had drifted from her to the Sleep Room. Debbie had come in and was pushing an electro-static mop over the floor and under the bed to get rid of dust, microscopic hair and skin flakes. Before the Study Participant arrived in the evening, the room would be allergen-free, guaranteed. That was part of Sleep Study International's Code of Operational Standards. No allergens, no germs, no synthetic fabrics.

"Are you watching her, Merrill?" Dr. Cummings said. Debbie was already finished mopping and had started cleaning the mirror. "No unnecessary effort – pure efficiency. Do you realize, Merrill, that she'll be finished cleaning that entire room in half the time it took you to change the sheets?"

Cheryl's eyes dampened. She watched Debbie wiping the two-way mirror, the woman's heavy arms moving up and around and down, her breasts and wide hips moving from side to side with the motion of her cleaning.

"Merrill, I want you to add some detail to these notes." Dr. Cummings was now looking at Cheryl, her notes in his lap. "Your assignment is to go through this pathetic rendering and add some detail. I want to read these notes, Merrill, and know how the Study Participant is feeling. Are you getting this? Do you understand me?"

Cheryl put out her hand for the 4Bs. She slid her hand along Dr. Cummings' thigh toward the pile of papers. "You could stay and help me put in some details. That way you'd know all about them and you'd be able to tell me what you wanted me to write," she said. She didn't look through the glass, but she could feel that Debbie was there, still cleaning, and she wished that Debbie could see her now with her hand on Dr. Cummings' thigh.

The leg twitched under her palm and some thin muscle quivered down beneath the layer of polyester medical trouser. The light shone off Cummings' glasses, turning them an opaque white. Was he looking at Debbie? Debbie had stopped wiping the mirror and was using it to investigate a red patch of skin on her thick neck. The effect was that she seemed to speculate disinterestedly on Cheryl's hand inching toward Cummings' groin.

Cummings jerked back in his chair, the soles of his loafers squeaking on the vinyl floor. The chair, which was on wheels, careened backward and smashed into the Observation Deck so hard that Cummings' glasses flew off and clattered at Cheryl's feet.

"Merrill," Cummings said. He repeated this twice while reaching for his glasses, his fingers groping out blindly over the sanitized floor. Cheryl had never seen his hands flutter in such agitation as they did in seeking his glasses. Cummings stared, unfocused, not at the floor, but directly in front of him at Cheryl's knees. Bending over in his chair made him grunt and he must not have known he was doing it, because he made no effort to stop himself.

Grunt away, you worm, Cheryl thought, you blind bat. (Cummings was searching in the wrong direction, opposite of where the glasses lay.)

Tell him where they are, why don't you? Pick them up, you moron, and help the blind, grunting, egotistical bastard know to whom thanks are due for the finding of his glasses! At least push them toward him with your toe – you can do that much, can't you?

Cheryl slid her foot along the floor.

"Merrill! Are you moving? Don't move!" Cummings said. "The last thing I need is for you to stomp around here in those clod-hoppers. You'll smash my glasses to smithereens, Merrill!" He dropped to his knees and crept along the floor until he found his glasses. Once they were back on his face he gave Cheryl one brief, magnified, indignant glance and pointed to the 4Bs he had left on his chair.

"Merrill, I expect you to take those home today. Take them and complete them as you should have done if you had the tiniest perception of how important each observed moment of the Study Participant's Sleep Session is! Details! And tomorrow, Merrill, we'll talk about your gross, your very disappointing although not entirely unexpected, lack of professionalism." He looked at Cheryl again and a tremor went over his body.

Is that disgust? Cheryl wondered. If I am not mistaken, and that was some signal of physical disgust, then, oh boy, is it mutual. Oh boy, do you not have to worry about my hand ever touching your creepy old-guy leg again! And you are the disgusting one around here, Mr. M.D.

Cheryl collected the 4Bs. She thought about going home, but it was Thursday and that was Sean's day off. He would be at the apartment all day and that made it uncomfortable for her to sleep because of the constancy of the television noise. Also, she was not supposed to sleep, she was supposed to redo the forms, which would require a level of concentration not helped by the screaming of Jerry Springer and his trailer-park minions.

It would be better to stay in the Observation Area and use the desk and ample supply of blank 4Bs. The office chair wasn't comfortable, but the room was quiet. Besides which, Cheryl wasn't yet tired enough to go home and not nearly tired enough to sleep.

Cheryl began thinking of her bed in the apartment. It was really some kind of cot (although she never folded it up) with a funny little mattress. The cot was against one wall and Sean's bed, a real bed, took up all of the little alcove on the other side of the room, which was probably designed as some kind of breakfast area because it was next to the tiny kitchen. Which was just perfect for Sean, who had appointed himself the food police/fridge guard when Cheryl came home in the morning. She had to squeeze past his bed to get into the kitchen and he always watched what she took out of the fridge or the cupboard.

"Are you going to eat all of that?" That was his favorite question. He laughed like a hyena over it. "Before you eat that enormous plate of food," he might say, "you might want to check your gigantic self out on the scale. Oh, that's right, you don't own one! Surprise, surprise!"

When Cheryl thought about Sean, she thought about Cummings and his shiver of disgust. She felt so hot, like her skin was on fire, and her heart was beating inside her ribcage like a clenching fist. She wanted to curl up into a ball and hide her head, but she had to finish the forms. It would only be worse if Cummings came back and the forms weren't done.

So she started to write.

There was detail. She put in the color of the walls, the shape of the Study Participant's head, the noise the door made when it slipped shut, the acceptably gradual dimming of the lights. Oh, and she was good – she made sure to describe the On Site Medication always as "the beneficial, scientifically-advanced pill-form substance." They would like that, wouldn't they? Cummings would like it because that was a lot of detail, wasn't it?

The forms took all day. Cheryl used all the blank 4Bs on the counter and then emptied the backup supply under the Observation Deck, but she kept hearing Cummings' voice from that morning: "What kind of screaming? Pain? Fright? Something else?" Cheryl knew that Cummings would not be happy, that he would stare at her as if she were a different life-form than himself, unless there was a good and detailed description of the Study Participant's screaming.

Well, okay doctor, Cheryl thought, this does not pose the kind of problem to me that you might hope!

She wrote: "The screaming of said Study Participant was not exceedingly loud in nature, nor very noisy. It might be said to be a kind of quiet screaming and I might even go so far as to say it was ear-piercing."

Ha! Cheryl thought.

She wrote: "The screaming was a continual action on the part of the Study Participant and he kept doing it and the duration of said continual screaming was exactly 10 minutes and four seconds."

Ha and ha!

Cheryl had come to the end of the Observation Narrative portion of that particular 4B. She started on a new one. She wrote: "The type of screaming could be described as …"

What kind of screaming had it been? Cheryl scratched out the sentence and began again: "The screaming was not a scream of pain, nor should the screaming be construed as a clue that the beneficial, scientifically advanced pill-form substance was causing pain to produce screaming."

I could be a doctor, Cheryl thought. I could write the stupid Medical Summary, I bet.

She wrote: "The screaming was also not produced by fright or, in other words, the screaming was not a scared sound or the sound of someone seeing a creepy, white ghost, for example."

Cheryl had to admit that the screaming was definitely in the "something else" category. She kept thinking about it, but nothing was coming to her. Not for a long time. It was 7 p.m.

Cheryl thought of the Study Participant and how, after dancing on the bed, his Sleep Smock flapping, his bony knees ghostly white in the dim room, after all that, he lay on his back and was quiet.

Finally, Cheryl wrote: "The Study Participant silently and with no noise continued to lay on his back, with his back flat against the mattress. He faced up. He stayed quiet for exactly two minutes and 32 seconds before he slowly (but still quietly) turned over onto his right, or starboard, side and curled up into the fetal position."

Cheryl wondered if "fetal position" was the correct terminology. Did it matter which side you were lying on? Did your knees have to touch your chin for it to be considered the fetal position? Were you supposed to be imagining that you were actually back in the womb? But if you really thought you were all curled up in your mother's womb, you wouldn't be screaming, would you? You would, instead, be comforted – that was the idea, wasn't it?

Cheryl felt sympathetic toward the Study Participant. If she, Cheryl, ever felt that she was back inside of her mother, she would at least scream. And it would be a sound like the squeal of freight-train wheels as they ground to a stop. Or something worse. But, Cheryl thought, the Study Participant's scream hadn't sounded like that. It was 8:20 and she couldn't think of what the screaming might have meant. Cummings always got to the Observation Area at 8:45 and Cheryl knew the stack of 4Bs was just about worthless without the important question answered: "What kind of screaming?"

Why am I sweating? Why am I itchy under my arms and on the backs of my thighs? Cheryl wondered, even though she knew that Cummings always made her nervous and she was always tense before the start of a Sleep Session. At 8:45 Cheryl saw Cummings pass the hall window of the Observation Area, glance in, and keep going down the hall.

Where do you think you're going, Doctor? she thought. Why aren't you coming in here to get your precious forms? Why aren't you checking my freaking details?

Maybe Cummings had her pink slip already in his pocket - maybe he had spent the day obtaining that proof of his victory in canning her. It was probably in his pocket right now and he would be thinking about it and even gloating in his mind while screwing Debbie.

The Session Bell rang – it was 8:55. The bell gave the Observator a last five minutes to check the bed and turn on the Auto Dimming Control before the Study Participant was brought into the Sleep Lab. Cheryl knew the bed was in order, so she set the Auto Dimming Control for the recommended 15 minutes and went out into the hall. Cummings was gone. There was no one in the hall, but Debbie's janitorial cart was standing there like a lost dog waiting for its owner to return.

Well, this is it Cummings, you ass! Cheryl thought. This is where I am justified in finding out your disgusting secret sex life with fat Debbie. This is where I get to look at you as if you're not human! She went to the door of the janitorial closet and put her ear on it. She could hear voices, soft voices, probably whispering horribly pornographic ideas.

One of the voices was definitely Cummings'. Cheryl thought, I'm not going to knock, oh no, I want to catch you in the act, fake doctor. Phony faker of Medical Summaries! I'm going to suddenly open this door and then we'll see who gets a Performance Salary Upgrade for catching Dr. M.P. Cummings doing it to the janitor and breaking the Non-Fraternization Rule so clearly put forth in Sleep Study International's Code of Employee Conduct!

Cheryl opened the door. Her first thought was that the inside of the janitor's closet was a lot bigger than expected. Where're the mops? she wondered. Where are the buckets and the gallons of Windex and the toilet paper and the clouds of pickled disinfectant?

The room was shadowed and there were Indian cloths or rugs or something on the walls, maybe covering the metal janitorial shelving and the collection of mops. A card table sat in the center of the room. Cummings sat in a folding chair on one side of the table and Debbie sat in a rocking chair on the opposite side. They were both holding a hand of cards. They were both fully clothed, although Cummings had taken off his lab coat and shoes.

Cummings never takes off his lab coat, Cheryl was thinking as she stood in the hallway, looking through the door. He never takes it off because it's got his super special important badge on it that says he's Doctor M.P. Cummings.

The room smelled like vanilla and popcorn – there was a bowl of popcorn on the table. A combination mini-microwave and coffeepot sat on a spare janitorial cart in the corner.

"Merrill, what are you doing here? Am I wrong, or isn't there a Study Participant scheduled tonight?" Cummings looked at his watch and Debbie craned her neck to look at it, too. "It's 9:05, Merrill! Which means, as you well know, that there is a Study Participant in the Sleep Lab at this very moment! This is highly, even grossly, negligent!"

Debbie patted his arm and said, "Marvin, don't ruin your karmic balance – we know she's upsetting to you, but act instead of react."

"You're right! You're right, as usual, Deb!" (Cummings' first name was Marvin?) "Why do I let this person who is so dull, so expressionless, so nearly transparent in thinness, disturb my peace?"

Cheryl closed the door. She ran back down the hall and into the Observation Area. Through the window, the Study Participant was settling himself in the bed Cheryl had made. He was lying back, closing his eyes, preparing for sleep. Cheryl watched him. She crawled up onto the counter and put her forehead against the two-way mirror. The Study Participant was the same man as the night before – the screamer.

He fell asleep quickly, but at one hour he was standing on the mattress, jerking spastically. Cheryl, her forehead still pressed to the glass, watched him. Why are you doing that, man? She was supposed to observe, not wonder, but she didn't care. The Study Participant's spastic jerking stopped and he collapsed on the bed, still asleep.

Why do you suddenly lie down, Cheryl wanted to ask him, like everything in you is drained away? Cheryl put both palms against the glass. Why do you curl up as if to go back to before you were born?

The Study Participant began screaming. His body was folded and his mouth barely opened.

Cheryl pushed herself against the mirror and closed her eyes. The screaming came into the Observation Area through two speakers in the ceiling. The sound filled the room.

"What kind of screaming is it?" Cheryl knew.

She left the Observation Area and went into the Sleep Room. Sleep Study International had very definite ideas about the Observator coming into direct contact with the Study Participant. It was the worst – absolutely the worst – kind of legal infringement or something. The Study Participant's piercing cries continued and the sound was much more disturbing up close.

"It's all right," Cheryl said as she took off her shoes. "It's all right, I know you're lonely." She crawled onto the mattress and lay next to the curled figure, fitting her body against his spine, resting her arm on his, and in the silence, she fell asleep.

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