by Paul Bacon
Sleeper's Fellowship met every Friday night in the gymnasium of an abandoned public high school. At precisely nine o'clock, founding member Wesley Carbone locked the doors and dimmed the lights. He then stepped onto the first row of bleachers and waited for the last of the 200-plus grown adults to tuck themselves into their sleeping bags on the auditorium floor. Speaking in a hushed voice over a handheld megaphone, he led a recital of the Sleeper's Prayer, the only words to be spoken the entire weekend:
"O Morpheus, we place ourselves in your tender care. Deliver us unto the land of Nod, where we may dwell in eternal repose. Tempt us not with thoughts of our earthly existence, nor trouble us with nightmares. If we should die before we wake, thank you and good night."
Members of the fellowship were well practiced in the art of escape. Once prisoners to everyday life, they had sought relief in alcohol and drugs, gluttony and sloth, ambition and greed. More than a few had attempted suicide, and some had satellite television installed in their homes. But these diversions failed to satisfy, for they all demanded at least a modicum of awareness. Getting drunk required active participation, amassing great fortunes even more so, and watching TV flooded the mind with uncomfortably familiar images and concepts. Eventually, they found sleep was the only true refuge.
Their would-be leader, Mr. Carbone, discovered the benefits of group slumber during a retreat to the South Pole. Grief-stricken over the recent death of his wife, he left his job as an elementary school principal to work as a cook/janitor for a meteorological post in Antarctica. For two months, he lived with a team of reclusive scientists, finding them all hideously depressed to the last man. One day, a particularly unstable researcher went bezerk and set fire to post's private quarters. The incident forced the men to bunk together in the mess hall, and Mr. Carbone began to notice an intriguing shift in their sleeping patterns. Whereas they had been keeping to a rigid diurnal schedule to cope with the ever-present daylight, the scientists were now sleeping for days on end. They seemed to multiply their tranquility through sheer numbers. Mr. Carbone secretly stayed up to observe the phenomenon, and to his amazement, nobody tossed or turned, nobody snored, and even the oldest men slept soundly without single trip to the latrine.
While the team's productivity ground to a halt, they spent their waking hours in a state of relative calm. The arguments and fist-fights that once plagued the mission were replaced by long periods of personal reflection. The meteorologists returned to their home countries to face professional ridicule, but Mr. Carbone considered the experience a profound revelation and a call to action.
He returned stateside in the early days of 12-step program boom and easily recruited two dozen members for the Sleeper's Fellowship in the first month. He was overwhelmed by his success at first, finding some members a little too eager to put him on a pedestal. A humble soul in no need of disciples, he removed himself from the organization as much as possible while still fostering its growth. He applied the reverse psychology he learned as a school principal and forbade anyone from speaking about the fellowship to outsiders. Membership tripled within a year.
Mr. Carbone's basement quickly proved too small to handle the influx of sleepers, so he sold most of his furniture to make space. He resolved to keep his late wife's sewing room as she had left it, until a group of out-of-work carnival hands appeared at his door. The only souls he ever turned away were a homeless man and his three-legged German shepherd. It broke Mr. Carbone's heart to do it, but people were already sleeping in his attic, on his stairs, and in his bathtub.
He lost control of the membership when a write-up in the local newspaper attracted an irresistible multitude. With people dozing all over his property, his home began to look like a refugee camp. The sleepers were a quiet and tidy lot for the most part, but Mr. Carbone's neighbors demanded an end to the weekly gathering. The need for a larger venue was now too great to ignore.
Convinced that raising money would corrupt his mission, Mr. Carbone moved the fellowship to an abandoned high school on the outskirts of town. The facility was free, and its gymnasium had ample floor space with plenty of room to grow. It had no electricity of course, and while sleeping required no light, Mr. Carbone knew the arriving members could not arrange themselves in the dark. So, he dipped into his retirement savings to buy a used gas-powered generator and flood lights from a road construction company.
Some of the more finicky members balked at the new impersonal venue. They had become spoiled by the coziness of Mr. Carbone's home and formed their own splinter group in protest. They staged noisy demonstrations outside the gym, disrupting the experience for all but the heaviest sleepers. After three straight weekends of mass tossing and turning, Mr. Carbone tried something new. He had been running the generator only long enough to get everyone situated on Friday nights, but on the fourth weekend, he left it on through the entire session. It took a bit of tinkering with the idle speed, but he found the engine provided enough white noise to drown out the demonstrators.
The only problem was the generator exhaust. By Monday morning, the smell was inescapable, suggesting a dangerous level of carbon monoxide in the windowless auditorium. Unfortunately, Mr. Carbone couldn't just open the doors to the parking lot. That would leave the fellowship vulnerable to the protestors, who had now added to their ranks a group of fledgling activists from the city college.
He decided the only workable plan was to release the fumes through the doors leading into the main school building. He placed the generator there, assuming the gas would safely dissipate into the classrooms. Mr. Carbone was no scientist, but he felt certain the volume of the facility would offer more than adequate ventilation.
Every week, the picketers grew more boisterous. Since the fellowship now met behind locked doors, their initial complaints about the gymnasium festered into charges of elitism and discrimination. They attracted great numbers from the otherwise unmotivated local populace, who came to honk their car horns, rev their motorcycles, and talk very loudly on cellular phones. Still, the generator droned on, and the sleepers slept.
One Friday evening, Mr. Carbone arrived at the school a little earlier than usual and found that a picket line had already formed. Moving through it with no small effort, he opened the auditorium doors and was greeted by a horrid stench. There was no mistaking: Something or someone had died. The protesters quickly detected the scent and began phoning the local media. After pleading with one of his detractors, Mr. Carbone was allowed to call 9-1-1.
Shortly afterward, a team of firefighters wearing oxygen masks penetrated the building and stayed inside for an awkward length of time. In the interim, Mr. Carbone was lavished with personal attacks by the protesters, who accused him of everything from philandering to genocide.
Finally, two of the firefighters carried out the limp body of a shabbily dressed man. Mr. Carbone recognized him as the homeless individual he had turned away from the fellowship months ago. Tears welled in his eyes as the protesters began a hauntingly upbeat chant.
When the dead man turned out to be alive, the demonstrators stopped singing. He was resuscitated within minutes in the fresh air, but the question remained: What died? The answer came when the last of the firemen stepped out of the gymnasium holding the stiffened corpse of a three-legged German shepherd.
The crowd erupted into shrieks and howling wails. While the prospect of a human victim had ennobled them, the dead animal beset them with grief--and eventually anger. They rushed toward Mr. Carbone with murder in their eyes. He retreated into the cab of the fire truck and watched as their rage grew until it sparked a small riot. With their primary target out of reach, they turned their umbrage on the vehicles in the parking lot, breaking windows and slashing tires.
As the driver radioed for police assistance, Mr. Carbone began to laugh for the first time in years. The joke was on the protestors, because the cars they were vandalizing were their own. It was still long before the sleepers' bedtime, and none of them had even arrived.
A paddy-wagon and a fleet of police cars roared onto the scene and had carted away the rioters within the hour. Mr. Carbone was left standing alone in the parking lot, wondering if it was time to call it quits. He had come early to fill up the generator tank, and with his trunk full of gas cans, he was tempted to set the whole stinking school ablaze. But, he thought, that would be an awful waste.
When the sleepers began to trickle in, Mr. Carbone directed them toward the grassless football field, where they would have to camp until the school had been aired out. The dissenters had been weeded from their ranks, so they went without complaint, and began fashioning eyeshades out of socks and brassieres. By 9 o'clock, they were tucked into their sleeping bags, ready to recite the Sleeper's Prayer. They dozed under the stars, then under the sun, then the stars, and so on until Monday morning, uninterrupted and blissfully unaware.
About the author:
Paul Bacon is a writer and cartoonist whose work has appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Mother Jones, Salon, the San Francisco Examiner and Wired. He currently writes for PBS Online and is seeking an agent for his novel, "Mental Malpractice." His articles, cartoons, and a revealing personal profile, including the contents of his refrigerator, are available at: http://www.paulbacon.com.