Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By: Tommy Vollman

It wasn’t the sleepwalking that bothered me. I woke up outside more often than I care to remember, but still, the sleepwalking never really bothered me. I was terrified, though, of the tracers. The tracers scared the shit out of me.

My parents were concerned, but only about the sleepwalking; they never knew about the tracers. I never told them. I mean, how the hell would I even have begun? I don’t think they ever knew I made it outside, either. If they would’ve known I went outside, holy shit—I’d have never heard the end of it.

I’m not exactly sure when I started sleepwalking, but I don’t remember doing it before the fourth grade. Fourth grade was rough. I had a hell of a time paying attention, and I missed a lot of the things my teacher said. When she—Ms. Burtich—noticed, she’d call me out in front of everyone. And those call-outs happened four or five times a day. She had to have known that something was up. I suppose there’s a chance she didn’t. Or maybe, she just didn’t give a shit. But I think she knew. And maybe she could’ve done something, something to help. At the very least she could’ve tried being less of an asshole. But she didn’t. Instead, she used me to sharpen her talons. I’d be sitting there, chasing tracers, and she’d come down on me about how I was daydreaming or whatever. If only she knew what was really going on. If only I could have explained. But even if I could’ve, she wouldn’t have wanted to listen.

No one wanted to hear about the tracers. Of course, I really never tried to explain them. I didn’t know how. I felt crazy because of them, and so I was scared as hell to say anything. I mean, how could I expect anyone to understand the tracers when I wasn’t even sure what they were?

I thought about the tracers all the time. Somebody would ask if I was okay, and I’d get so close to saying something, but then I wouldn’t. I couldn’t ever manage to say anything about them, so after a while, I just quit trying.

Now, when I think back, I wonder why I didn’t say anything, I wonder why I didn’t ask for help. But I don’t have an answer. I suppose I just hoped that one day they’d stop. Eventually, they did. I mean, try to imagine, as a nine year-old, telling somebody about the white-hot lights that zoomed in front of your face—tiny little comets—that just suddenly appeared out of nowhere and shot across the frame of your vision for five, ten, twenty minutes. Try to imagine telling people about the blue streaks that the tracers left, the ones that blocked out some things but not everything. I could never be sure what was real and what wasn’t.

There’s no explaining something like that.

I’d have been at a specialist in a half-minute. And maybe I should’ve been at a specialist, but I never told anyone about the tracers, so I wasn’t. I just hoped and prayed as hard as I could that they wouldn’t happen during baseball games when I most wanted, when I most needed to see everything clearly.

Hell, I spent so much time with the tracers, it was hard to pay attention to anything else. And that’s why fourth grade was such a fucking disaster. Fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth weren’t as bad; I suppose I learned how to cope.

Baseball, though, was my one constant, my fixed point, my escape. The tracers never came during baseball games. Sometimes they came before, other times after, but they never, ever came during a game.

And I needed to keep it that way.

Sometimes, though, I’d get anxious. I’d wonder if a bit of glare that caught the bill of my cap was a tracer. Or if the glint from a swinging metal bat was one. Or if the reflection off a car door or windshield or rear view mirror out in the parking lot was one. It got so bad—my dread of the tracers—that I’d think up all these complicated scenarios and repeat them over and over just to keep my mind off the tracers: runner on first, no outs, I’m playing left field and the lefty at the plate swings inside-out and hits one down the line. How do I break? How do I field the ball? Backhanded, of course, but do I spin and throw or take the extra step, plant, and throw? Is the play at second or third? How fast is the runner on first? What kind of jump will he have? I’d spend my time unraveling a seemingly infinite tangle of possibilities just to keep my mind off the tracers. It was my hope that this sort of unraveling—an attempt to keep my mind busy and engaged—would keep the tracers away, far away from the baseball diamond. And it must have worked because they never came during a game. Baseball was—and stayed—my safe spot. Baseball remained free, clear, and unencumbered.

Everywhere else, though, did not.

My fourth-grade classroom, for instance—Jeri Burtich’s room 4B—was a haven for the tracers. 4B was everything the baseball diamond wasn’t. 4B was a nightmare, a Petri dish for tracers. I hated 4B almost as much as the tracers themselves. Sunday trough Thursday, my sleep was bullshit. I’d lay in bed and think about 4B and those fucking tracers. I’d think about how they’d burn over my eyes, and how Ms. Burtich would be up my ass about not paying attention, and how I wouldn’t say anything when she brought me up to the front of the class and held my hand while she told the class the assignment. She’d make me stand there while she wrote it out for me.

“So you can look at it and concentrate,” she’d say, all slow and drawn-out like I didn’t or couldn’t understand English or something. I understood English just fine. It was the tracers that were the problem. And her. She was a problem, too, with her fat, soft hand lightly squeezing mine, her breath way too hot and close.

She always sat in one of the tiny chairs that were made for elementary kids so that part of her enormous ass would struggle to escape between the two metal bars that held the lumbar support in place. When she was in one those chairs, the lumbar support seemed to struggle to escape the chair, to escape Ms. Burtich and 4B entirely. I always expected one of the chairs she sat in to just explode under her weight, but none ever did. She was so fat and puffy, she probably weighed nothing. She was a marshmallow, I figured, which is why none of those chairs ever exploded even though every single one should have. She was mostly made, I guessed, of puffed air. And she wrote as slowly as she spoke, but her writing, unlike her speech emerged as a series of slanted, hooked loops, always crafted by a felt-tip marker that was light blue or bright pink or neon green. She never wrote on the lines; those hooked loops always ran diagonal across the sky-blue rules. And that bothered me most about her. What made her think she didn’t need to stay in the lines when everyone else did?

But a 10 year-old doesn’t think things like that. And if they do, they definitely don’t say them, not to their 4th grade teacher, not to anyone. And so when Ms. Burtich called me out, I stood there and struggled to try and repeat something I hadn’t heard in the first place.

It wasn’t like I didn’t want to pay attention to her; it was simply that I couldn’t. And that, I suppose, was why I never talked to anybody about much of anything. Everything was so goddamned exhausting. My feelings, the tracers—everything—made very little sense. And I really wanted—needed—things to make sense. The fact that nothing seemed to add up, short of baseball, made me feel a little hopeless and quite a bit alone, which only made the tracers worse. The more I worried, the more hopeless I felt, and then the more frequently the tracers occurred. And when they came, they stayed around longer. Five minutes became ten, then twenty. I began to talk to myself to try to calm down, to convince myself that everything, eventually, would be okay. Of course, it was nearly impossible for me to believe anything I told myself. Still, I continued until one day something happened, something strange, something I still can’t explain. One day, my voice—the voice that came mostly in whispers as I tried to calm myself, to tell myself everything was going to be okay—changed. My voice didn’t sound that much different, it didn’t get deeper or louder or anything like that. What happened, the way it changed, was that it got stronger, more persistent. And that strength made it easier for me to listen, which made me feel less hopeless. And even though I still didn’t tell anyone about the tracers, I felt less alone. The strength of my own voice gave me power. But that power didn’t chase away the tracers or make me really believe that things would be okay.

But maybe that wasn’t the point.

Maybe the point was that at a young age I got the opportunity to learn that true freedom meant being able to embrace whatever happened, whether I understood it or not. Freedom, I learned, was really just possibility, which made it seem much less appealing than it probably actually was.

Of course, I’m no expert.

But here’s the thing: The tracers stopped one day, suddenly, and they haven’t come back even though I worry almost all the time that they will. And when the tracers stopped, so did the sleepwalking, which never really bothered me that much in the first place.


Tommy Vollman is a writer, musician, and painter. He has written a number of things, published a bit, recorded a few records, and toured a lot. Tommy’s work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the “Best of the Net” anthology. His stories and nonfiction have appeared (or will appear) in issues of The Southwest ReviewTwo Cities ReviewThe Southeast Review, Palaver, and Per Contra. He has some black-ink tattoos on both of his arms. Tommy really likes A. Moonlight Graham, Kurt Vonnegut, Two Cow Garage, Tillie Olsen, Willy Vlautin, and Albert Camus. He’s working on a novel entitled Tyne Darling and has a new record, Youth or Something Beautiful, slated for release in early-2019. He currently teaches English at Milwaukee Area Technical College and prefers to write with pens poached from hotel room cleaning carts.

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