Overflow, Michael Levin
A sleepwalking old man brings a community together in the waves of the sea.
So now Lemke’s asleep, or maybe in some kind of coma—I don’t know, we’re waiting for Doc Mitchell to come up and figure it out, but he’s helping deliver the baby of a Mrs. Kisnetsky a few towns down the coast. For now though, I got Lemke all stretched out on a little cot in my living room. I unclip all the buckles on that purple life preserver of his, take it off and put it by the door. Stu’s here and so is my sister Mandie, who’s married to Stu, and I’m telling her what happened while she gets old Lemke out of his wet clothes and into some dry ones of mine. Stu’s nodding along to what I say because he was there on the boat with me.
It was all pretty straightforward, see, Stu and I had just finished hauling in a catch when Stu kind of paused and looked at Lemke, who was up against the rail smiling to himself the way he does sometimes.
“What’cha thinking, Lemke?” I said.
Well, I don’t know what he was thinking, but I do know decks get slippery and Lemke’s boots are as old as he is, so a wave jolts us a little and then the laws of gravity kick in and down goes Lemke. He bangs his head good and hard on the deck, then over the side he goes, right into the sea. We were real worried for sure, but he had his purple life preserver and he was on a line, so we were able to pull him back on board. Then Stu gave Lemke some CPR. He looked awkward about it later, when we were telling Mandie, and I wondered what she thought about her husband putting his mouth on that old mouth of Lemke’s. Lemke didn’t have many teeth left to be stained by all those cigarettes he smoked, so instead the grey beard around his lips was turning an ugly sort of yellow-brown.
Anyway, given the circumstances, I didn’t tease Stu about it, but he wouldn’t have minded too much because we’ve been good friends for twenty years since we played little league baseball together and he’s married to Mandie and all. It was a good thing he did the CPR too, because Lemke had some water in the lungs, and he coughed it out but he didn’t really gain consciousness—he just coughed out the water automatically and then he went asleep again on the deck. Or into a coma. We’re waiting for Doc Mitchell to get here and tell us.
Well, news gets around about Lemke and a few people stop by my place to see him: the Hendersons, the Amlinsons and then Francis Peters, who’s as old as Lemke and who lives in the upstairs of the house I’m in, on the road near the harbour. Francis comes in without knocking, looks at Lemke and crosses himself three times before he leaves.
Last to visit is Gerrold Hughes, who’s always looking for things to write for the Bulletin because he wants to go off to college somewhere and be a journalist. He’s going to do an article about Lemke and promises it’ll be in the paper tomorrow morning.
“But the paper doesn’t come out ’til Friday,” Stu says.
“No no no!” Gerrold says. He’s an excitable kid. “This is special edition stuff! Oh yeah! Oh yeah!”
Then Doc Mitchell calls, and Mandie picks up and answers the questions he asks about Lemke, but I guess Doc can’t make it tonight. “He says it’s this Mrs. Kisnetsky,” Mandie tells us. “She’s still in labour, poor lady.”
I say I’ll watch Lemke for the night, and Stu figures we should do it in shifts and that he’ll come over later so I can get some sleep. But until then, it’s just me and Lemke. He’d been on the boats a long time, since he came over from Germany, or Kazakhstan or Madagascar, or wherever it was, nobody was really too sure. He never talked much, except with Francis Peters, and then it was mainly just Frank talking to Lemke and Lemke smoking. They’d shared a boat ’til Frank retired a few months ago and that’s when Lemke came on with Stu and me. Back when I was a kid, he’d come watch our little league games and sit with most of the rest of the town in the bleachers.
“Saa-wing! Saa-wing battabattabatta!” he would cackle to himself, and that was about all the English we ever got out of him.
I guess I doze off a bit because next thing I know, it’s real dark in the living room and old Lemke is sitting up in bed, his eyes open.
“Oh good, you’re up. You gave us quite a… Lemke? Oh, hell!”
That’s when I realize Lemke is actually still asleep. Sure, he’s sitting up and his eyes are open, but the man is in some totally other plane of reality. It’s like talking to an alien. It’s like talking to the dead. The strangest part is that even though he doesn’t belong in the world of awake people, Lemke knows where everything is. So sure enough, he looks right at me, sleeping with his eyes open, then stands up and lumbers a few steps, pulling the bed sheet along behind him in a clenched fist. When he gets beside the front door, he drops the sheet and picks up the purple life preserver he was in earlier. He holds it in his hands and looks at the door handle.
“Uh, what’cha thinking, Lemke?”
Apparently, what he’s thinking is he’s going to wear that life preserver because on it goes, buckles and snaps and everything. He puts a white hand on the door handle and gives it a good twist. Well, the door’s locked and just hiccups against the frame when he pulls. The hand withdraws. Now I get up.
“Okay, Lemke, that’s enough!”
But Lemke’s not deterred. He reaches out his hand and, without even looking for it, pulls the key off the table next to the door, unlocks it and walks outside in that purple life preserver. I stumble out after him. He goes all the way down to the beach beside the dock and wades into the surf. He turns around and faces me, not ten feet away, spreads his arms wide and splats right into the water on his back, floating there in his life preserver, going out a bit with a wave, then coming back in. Well, what can I do but take off my shoes, wade in and drag him out feet first back onto the beach.
“Now stay, would ya.”
By the time I run to wake Stu and Mandie, he’s back to floating on top of the water, looking up at whatever. We drag him out again and pull him all the way to the house, but let me tell you, he doesn’t come easy. Mandie takes charge of towelling him off and changing him into dry clothes again. We tuck the bed sheet under the mattress this time so it’s real tight. Stu stays up with me and we have a drink and watch Lemke, who’s nice and stationary now, his eyes closed and everything.
The next day, Gerrold comes around early to deliver papers and sure enough, there’s an article about Lemke front and centre. I stick it on the fridge. There’s no word about the night excursion, but when I tell Gerrold about it, he thinks about trying to do an afternoon edition. “Oh yeah!” he says. “Oh yeah! This is getting big!”
Over the course of the day, people start coming by the house again. Stu and Mandie, of course. Mandie makes these homemade candles to sell in the grocer’s and sets out a few, so there’s this glow all around Lemke. I don’t know what it is about candles, but it makes people talk quieter. So they all come and sit by Lemke (who’s out like a lead brick now), and they just stay with him a while and whisper a few things.
That’s what the Hendersons do. And the MacAuleys and Jeremy and Alison French and Pastor Bill. Jake Schmidt comes and Tara and Suzanne and my folks stop in and Stu’s mum and more or less the rest of the town. Well, it’s a full house, so I make some veggie trays and cut up some cheese and get out the Triscuits and the next thing I know, Mr. Amlinson comes in with a casserole and then Mandie goes home and comes back an hour later with two plates of sugar cookies. We’re all sitting around enjoying the potluck and watching Lemke sleep when old Francis Peters comes down from upstairs. He takes a look at Lemke, then turns around and leaves right away. When he comes back later, he’s got a bunch more candles and a barbecue lighter. He lights the candles and puts them next to Lemke. Then he takes a couple of Mandie’s cookies, puts them in a napkin and goes back upstairs.
Doc Mitchell calls again that night: “We finally got the little Kisnetsky out, but he’s not doing well at all. I’ve got to stay overnight. I tried calling the EMS helicopter for you, but the damn thing’s in maintenance. And this little guy will get priority as soon as it’s available. What’s Mr. Lemke’s pulse?”
I give him the pulse and tell him about the sleepwalking. Doc’s not too sure what to make of that even though I explain it as best as I can. Try to make him eat something if it happens again, he says.
Thanks to Gerrold’s afternoon edition of the Bulletin, everybody in town has heard about Lemke’s night excursion, and it’s getting pretty late now and people aren’t leaving, so I figure it’s because they’re wondering if he’ll start sleepwalking again. Gerrold showed up an hour ago and has had half a dozen cups of coffee and is just sitting, staring at the old man with his notepad in one hand and a pen in the other.
“Can you please brew some more coffee? Please? Please?”
“You really want more?”
“Oh yeah! Oh yeah! But first can I ask you something, for the paper?”
“What does it mean to you, having Lemke here, in your very own house?”
“Well, Francis Peters actually owns the place. I just rent the main floor from him ’cause he likes it upstairs and doesn’t need the space.”
“But what’s it mean to you?”
“I dunno, Gerrold, I guess he hit his head pretty bad, so I’m sorry for him but glad to help out a little having him here and all.”
“How did you feel when you realized he was sleepwalking last night?”
“I was sort of weirded out, you know, because it was like it was Lemke, but maybe it wasn’t really him because he was kind of operating all unconsciously, I guess.” The interview makes me really self-conscious because everybody there is listening. “I’ll go make you more coffee.”
While I’m in the kitchen I start washing a few dishes. Mandie comes in and starts to dry. From the window I can see a few people hanging out on the street that leads down to the dock.
“What are they all doin’ there, Mandie?”
“I think they’re waiting.”
It’s getting near midnight.
“Can we blow out the candles?” I ask. “If he starts dragging that bed sheet around again, it’ll catch and the whole place will go up in flames.”
Stu blows out the candles and flicks on the lamp, and the whole room fills with vanilla-scented smoke.
Lemke sits up. Everyone murmurs.
“Oh yeah! Oh yeah! Mr. Lemke, can I ask you a question—”
Gerrold and everybody else shut up instantly.
“You see!” I say. “It’s bloody unnerving. It’s right bloody unnerving!”
Lemke stands up and sleepwalks forward. Everybody parts for him to pass. He drags the bed sheet. Mandie gives it a tug and it falls from his hand. He stares over at her. He never blinks when he’s doing this sleepwalking thing. She holds a cookie out for him, apologetically, murmuring what Doc said about making him eat. Lemke’s finger brushes her hand when he takes the cookie, and she shivers. He plops the whole thing in his mouth and munches away as he puts on that purple life preserver again.
He opens the door and we follow him out and down we go, down to the beach by the dock. As we pass the people who’ve been waiting outside, they all stand up like they’re doing the wave, and a big whisper swells all around: Lemke! Lemke! Lemke!
Down into the surf Lemke wades. He turns around, spreads his arms, then he’s floating on his back again.
“Just like last night,” Stu says. “That’s what he was doing last night.”
“It is,” I say. “That’s what he did.”
We all stare at him a few seconds. He goes out a bit. He comes back in. He bobs down. He rises back up.
“Say…” Mandie says in this slow, pensive way she uses when she wants something but isn’t sure what everyone else will think.
Stu glances at her. “What’s up, dear?”
“Well, he looks so peaceful.”
“He does look peaceful,” pitches in Mr. Amlinson.
“Very peaceful,” says Pastor Bill.
“He does, doesn’t he?” says Alison French.
“Oh yeah!” says Gerrold. “Oh yeah!”
“He looks like a corpse,” says Stu, then he whispers: “Sorry.”
“I think he’s onto something.” Mandie puts her hands on her hips and walks to the boathouse over by the dock. She jiggles the handle the way you have to with that door and comes back all bundled up in a purple life preserver. She walks to the beach, takes off her shoes and socks and faces us all. She smiles at Stu and she smiles at me, and with a long sigh, she splashes right back and floats next to Lemke.
Gerrold starts scribbling like a madman. And then Stu gives me this little grin like the one he gave me back when he first fessed up to liking Mandie and pretty soon he’s floating there too in his own life preserver, and so are Mr. Amlinson and Pastor Bill and Alison and Jeremy French; and so are the Hendersons and the MacAuleys and Jake Schmidt and Tara and Suzanne and my folks and Stu’s mum and Gerrold, and one by one, wouldn’t you know it, the whole town is out there floating beside the dock.
A hand grasps my shoulder. I turn around and there’s Francis Peters. He holds out an old life preserver that matches the one he’s wearing and nods.
“Okay, Frank. Thanks.”
We wade through a couple rows of the whole town floating there and lie down between Mandie and Lemke. We kind of bob a bit. Mandie looks over at me. “Don’t you feel relaxed?”
“I don’t feel much of anything, it’s so cold in here.”
“Look at all those stars. They’re so peaceful. It gets you thinking, doesn’t it?”
“All this with Lemke. I just feel so sure he’s telling us something, you know?”
“Well, he hasn’t said anything since he banged his head. And he never really talks anyway.”
“Maybe he doesn’t have to. Maybe we just have to trust, you know? Just trust.”
Stu reaches out and takes Mandie’s hand on the surface of the water. We all bob up and down for a while. People murmur little things to each other that blend in with the sound of the waves.
Lemke sits up all at once and starts wading his way around all the floating people up the beach and back toward the house. People stir as he passes them.
“Is he awake?” Gerrold asks.
Francis Peters shakes his head.
“Oi! Lemke! You awake?” Stu yells. “Guess not.”
Lemke keeps walking back, totally oblivious.
“Well, come on then,” Mandie says, “let’s go,” and one by one everybody gets out of the sea and follows Lemke back up the beach.
The next day, Lemke snores real loud; he fills up the whole living room with those snores. A few people come by, but not as many as before. Gerrold drops in briefly but he figures the story’s peaked. Doc Mitchell phones to say the Kisnetsky baby’s doing much better—a real miraculous recovery.
Stu and Mandie stop in for a bit and Francis Peters comes down around noon. He sits himself on the edge of Lemke’s cot with a little cordless radio to listen to baseball.
“It’s game three,” he assures me.
It’s up, up, up and outta here! says the radio announcer.
The window is propped open and the breeze stirs a few of the bed sheets real gently so it’s a bit like Lemke’s floating in the waves again.
“What’cha figure he’s thinking, Frank?”
Francis Peters shakes his head. “God only knows, lad. God only knows,” and that’s about the time that Lemke stops snoring.