At 8:22 on a Tuesday morning Sebastian T. laid down on a sidewalk. He hadn’t planned to. He’d been on his way to the big see-through house where five days each week he’d sit down for eight point five hours to decide which typefaces best convey to the public the merits of dill-flavored cream cheese. Ten times each week he would walk through this alley paying it no attention. There was nothing special about this alley. There was nothing special about this Tuesday either. But his brain had been making thoughts while he walked, as brains do, and then one of the thoughts had been what if he were to just lie down right there on the sidewalk, and then he couldn’t come up with a reason not to. So he placed his portfolio on the ground like a pillow and laid down on his back with his eyes staring up at the sky.
At 8:23 his heart and his mind both raced with the thoughts of his work and his boss and his coworkers and what they would think if they saw him and when he would have to get up and go back to doing the things that constituted his life, and what if he didn’t. He wasn’t sure if the thrill he felt was one of dread of excitement.
At 8:24 he had grown to detest a pebble that dug itself into his shoulder. He would’ve rolled over and moved it but a sense of pride that he couldn’t explain to himself somehow compelled him not to.
At 8:28 the whole silly whim bored him. His brain primed his limbs to hoist him back up on his feet, but then he saw himself dusting off his jacket and walking step after step to the building where he’d sit at a desk for hours and hours and then walking back to his home and cooking himself dinner and eating his dinner and going to bed and waking up the next day to do it all over and suddenly the task of standing up felt insurmountable.
At 8:41 he was done with all thoughts of his life and of sidewalks. Instead he lay trying to recall the lyrics to Johnny B Goode. Once he had them all he started singing it to himself. He got most of the way through the first verse but stopped, embarrassed, wondering what he would say if someone found him like that. He lay silent again for a while. Then he figured he had no good explanation if someone found him like that either, and picked up where he had left. He’d never sung while lying down, but he quickly got better. By the last set of Go Johnny Gos his voice rang out more clearly than ever before, lying or standing. He sang it twice more, then moved on to Ring of Fire, Big Iron, and finally Rapper’s Delight.
At 9:34 he imagined his own corpse. A drained, cocoon-like husk in an oversized suit. Grey, brittle skin merging seamlessly with the street. A sparse palette of autumn leaves and cigarette butts and maggots. Of course, if he actually were to die here someone would find his body and clean it away long before he could decompose. But still, it was a lovely picture.
At 9:56 a stranger walked into the alley. A middle-aged woman wearing a red woolen overcoat. Sebastian shut his eyes and pretended to be asleep. When the stranger saw him she took a few hurried steps and knelt beside him to ask if he was alright. He didn’t move. She checked his pulse and his breathing, then shook him by the shoulders. He still didn’t respond. She patted him down and fished his wallet out of its pocket. He heard her sift through it and wondered if he ought to do something, but he hadn’t felt up to dealing with the situation as it had been and this just complicated it further. And the contents of his wallet were all part of the regular world, the one where he lived and ate and worked, and he didn’t want to think about those things again quite yet. Eventually she put the wallet back and walked away. When he was sure she was gone he examined it. She’d taken all the bills – $87, as he recalled – but left the cards and the change.
At 10:17 he shifted a little. The pebble under his shoulder tipped over and turned up a smoother side. He’d forgotten it was there and now that the prodding was gone it somehow felt wrong. He rubbed his back on the ground until the pebble was nudged back upright. Positioned himself so it dug into the same place as before, and relaxed.
At half past ten he’d fallen into a shallow sleep and dreamed a dream about horses.
At 13:41 he woke, awfully thirsty. He knew there was a corner store two blocks away, but they didn’t take cards. He got out his wallet and counted the change. Not enough for a bottle of water. It might be enough for a small can of soda, but he’d never liked the itchy feel of carbonated drinks. There was another store four blocks in the other direction, but he’d always avoided them as they overcharged for everything. Of course, worrying about a few extra cents for a bottle of water was silly when he’d just let himself get robbed, but it was a matter of principles. And on the subject of principles, there was the beautiful corpse thing again. He wasn’t sure yet he wanted to die here, but either way what he did should be a conscious choice. If he got up and bought something to drink, he couldn’t very well lie back down afterwards, could he? He’d just be giving up.
At 13:45 he got out his phone and googled how long it takes to die from dehydration. Three days, it turned out. And he’d made it through the first, what, five hours? If that was his endgame, he was in for a hard time. He really ought to make up his mind about whether that was his endgame.
At 13:46 he was watching a compilation video of goofy owls.
At 14:32 he’d watched so many clips of funny animals that the events on the screen had become a single shapeshifting critter shrieking and flailing with countless furry appendages. He put the phone away and lay staring at the wall for a while. It was a nice wall. Rain-withered bricks with a hue like spoiled meat or cinnamon.
At 20:04 he woke and was struck with two realizations. The first was that he’d fallen asleep again. The second was that he badly needed to pee. He propped himself up on his elbows, but hesitated. He still hadn’t gotten around to deciding whether or not he should die here – and he should really get that done once the needing-to-pee thing was solved – but he still didn’t want to get up before having made his decision. He looked around the alley and the piece of street seen where it ended. There was no one in sight. Nothing could be heard, either, except some cars in the distance. He rolled over, inched sideways until he lay balancing on the curb. Shifting his position so he could move both his arms, he unzipped his fly and let out a stream over the edge, onto the street below. He finished without accident and, a bit proud of the maneuver, zipped his pants and returned to his old spot.
At 20:19 he was singing again. This time: Keep On The Sunny Side.
At 20:35, having also sung Amazing Grace, twice, he fell asleep again.
At 1:54 he twitched and the asphalt felt strange and coarse on his arm and he jerked awake to the dark and tried to recall where he was and why. His palms patted the ground while his mind searched for clues; the walking to work, the singing, the familiarity of the pebble in his back. When he hit the memory of choosing to lie down, his brain felt at ease and went back to what it had been doing. A half-dreamed, aborted string of thoughts forming an idea, so clear, so precise in shape he could almost taste it, yet the contents now just out of reach. For ten-fifteen minutes he lay trying to find his way back to that notion. There was something about steel wires and a word ending in non or mon. The thought itself seemed to have a dark and savory texture.
At 2:16 his mind had examined the vision of wires for so long that he couldn’t be sure it was the same one he’d originally dreamed. It seemed now to have merged with some mostly forgotten picture of levers and pulleys he’d seen in a book as a child. He started thinking about the basic mechanic principles, putting together in his head cogwheels, weights, ropes and balancing boards of varying shapes and sizes. He opened his eyes to look at the two facades rising moonlit above him, and superimposed upon them contraptions to open shutters, wash bricks, deliver food or punt potted plants out of windows, powered only by wind and rain.
At 3:36, a stone’s throw behind him, somebody puked. After a while the heaving subsided and footsteps ambled his way. A man came into view; around twenty-five years old, with a thick beard and Mediterranean complexion. He noticed Sebastian and asked something too slurred to decipher but with a clear tone of concern. This time Sebastian grunted reassuringly in response. The stranger half leaned, half fell into a sitting position and produced a package of breath mints. He took one for himself and then, with some effort, placed the package on Sebastian’s belly. He mumbled something in which could be discerned the words ‘need this more than me’, ‘sleep it off’ and ‘yolks with tabasco’, then wandered off in the direction from which he had come. Sebastian ate a mint, hoping it might help quench his thirst somehow. It didn’t really. Still, it tasted good and the chewing gave him something to think about, a low-effort task in which his mind could rest as he pulled up his knees and closed his eyes. Feeling at home now on the asphalt he slept soundly and without dreams.
At 8:14 he opened his eyes and blinked at the morning light.
At 8:15 he’d called to mind where he was and why. He got out the mints and ate one. When it had dissolved to a sliver he let two more join it. Across the street a pigeon watched him with mild curiosity.
He sat up and called Meg, the manager of his department. When she answered he explained that things had come up the day before that kept him from coming in and she said she figured as much but he should’ve called to inform them, and he agreed, disconnected the call and got up. He brushed off his clothes and portfolio and made a motion to leave. Then he stopped. He picked up the pebble and slipped it into his breast pocket before walking away.