Sometimes, just to get my bearings, I think back on the sheer
ordinariness of that morning in September. Betsy left before light
to start her shift at the Jump Start Restaurant over on 70. I
watched her moving through the bedroom, a familiar shadow in the
familiar dark. She didn't need to turn on any lights to know where
she was and didn't want to because she didn't want to wake me. My
eyes were open, as they always were whenever she stirred, but my
head was heavy in the pillow and I was as still as a stone in a
churchyard. She leaned over and kissed me so lightly that I wasn't
sure if I felt her lips or her breath, and she whispered to me,
"Kurt, darling, don't let Miriam sleep too late." She stood up for
a second, then leaned back down. "Love you, Baby," she said, and
she was gone.
The first dim glow of dawn crept into the room about an hour later,
and I watched the windows take shape as shadows on the opposite
wall. But still, I didn't move. There was no work for me today, and
I no longer had the energy or the will, or saw the purpose, of
saying prayers. The idea passed through my mind, as ideas do in the
early morning, that love had taken the place of faith. And if that
was so, then so be it.
Miriam was in her room, too big for her baby bed now. Her Disney
Pocahontas nightgown was all scrunched up around her, and her hair
was damp. I like for us to sleep with the windows open and the
night air moving through the screens. But last night was too hot
for that, I thought. Too hot. And she was so peaceful in the dawn
cool. She could sleep as long as she wanted. My baby here in my
house in my old hometown in Kansas. Nobody and nothing was going to
disturb her, not while Daddy was around.
The refrigerator door made a little noise when it opened. I drank
the milk out of the carton, then poured myself some of the coffee
that Betsy had brewed. The little countertop television was turned
on without the sound. She'd just watched it for the time and the
weather maps. She didn't care what anybody on it had to say. And
now I watched it, too, silently. Smiling faces. Everyone so happy
in the morning. So happy. I put a couple of Eggos in the old
toaster. The smell of them warming filled the kitchen.
The faces on the television weren't smiling now. Katie Couric
looked like something had gone really wrong with her day. And Matt,
too. I'd never seen him so serious, unless it was when they were
talking about colon cancer.
That's how ordinary the morning seemed. With the sound turned off,
just watching their lips move, I thought they were talking about
cancer. Or anorexia. Or maybe the death of somebody who worked at
the network. And then they showed the New York skyline, and the
World Trade Center towers. One of them was burning. Smoke was
pouring out of it in every direction, worse than one of those hotel
fires in Vegas, billowing up the sides of the building in gray
waves of soot. A shape passed through the corner of the frame, and
the second tower exploded.
It must have been thirty minutes later, maybe an hour, when Miriam
came into the kitchen. She was headed for the refrigerator. She
looked at the TV and paid it no attention. She pulled the milk
carton off the shelf. She looked at me. She waited for me to say
no, and when I didn't, she drank out of the carton, spilling a
little on each side of her face. She put the milk back, clumsy and
dainty at the same time, and she dragged her chair over to the
counter, and climbed up to get a paper towel so she could wipe her
face, then wipe up the floor, like Mommy taught her. In case I
didn't notice, she held up the paper towel for me to see before she
put it in the trash under the sink.
I remember all that now, but it was as if I didn't see Miriam when
she was there in front of me. The first Trade Center tower had
collapsed, and now the second one was coming down. Thousands would
be dead. Maybe tens of thousands.
"Do you want to watch cartoons?" I said.
I surfed through the channels, but every one of them was showing
the collapse of the towers. Finally I reached the Cartoon Network.
"There you go, Sugar. Top Cat. I'm going to go out to the garage
for a few minutes."
"Can I turn on the sound?"
"Loud as you want," I said. "Loud as you want."
The garage was my workshop. I had my bench and saws in there, and a
lot of wood and veneer for the kitchens I install. Against one wall
sat a big old lift-top freezer that looked like it might once have
held Cokes and Yoo-Hoos in some out-of-the-way general store, which
it had, but now there were metal straps on the top and the sides
that were held together by a big padlock. If anybody asked, I told
them that was so Miriam didn't think about playing in there, and
everybody understood that.
I found the key where I had left it, under the bottom tray in my
toolbox, and slipped it into the lock. It didn't budge. I turned it
harder and felt the metal of the key start to give. Gentler now, I
shook it in the lock, slid it a little out, a little in, the key
quivering in my grip until the mechanism gave a click, and turned,
and the lock sprung open. I felt a rush of satisfaction. "Still got
a touch," I said out loud, and a low moan followed my voice out of
my lungs until I was breathless.
Folks who go to the Jump Start for coffee in the morning feel kind
of possessive about it, like only Westfielders would go there. It's
not a franchise, not part of a chain. It's just part of our town.
On days when I was working, I'd take Miriam over and drop her off
about eight, just as the last customers were pulling out of the
lot. But this morning, even at nine-thirty when we got there, the
lot was full, and there was a crowd inside staring at the little
television on the bracket above the counter.
"Oh, my Sugar! My Darling," said Betsy. I had Miriam in my arms and
my wife threw her arms around both of us, stretching to pull us
toward her like a woman who thought she'd lost her family forever.
Tears were pouring down her cheeks. "This is the most horrible
thing I ever imagined."
"It's like Judgment Day," I said.
"I hear you, Brother," came a voice that I didn't think I knew from
among the television watchers.
"It's like Judgment Day for some people," I told Betsy, lowering my
voice and passing our daughter over into her arms. "But not for
us." Betsy rubbed her eyes. "You mind if I get a couple of Cokes
out of the back?" I said.
"You have no shame," she said.
"I'm just thirsty."
"Well I don't want to know about it."
"I'll put them in here," I said, holding up my battered old
The freezer in the Jump Start is a big one. You can't exactly walk
into it, but to get to some of the rear shelves you have to kind of
squeeze in. The back corners of it, I'm sure, haven't been seen by
any employee, much less any health inspector, since Kansas was
Indian Territory. I pulled what looked like a small, red fire
extinguisher bottle with no nozzle out of my pack and pushed it to
the very back of the very top shelf, then shoved a bag of ice in
front of it.
"You get what you wanted?" Betsy asked me when I came back
"Is a six-pack too much to take?"
"Baby, nobody's going to notice nothing like that missing today.
And not for a long time to come."
On the morning of September 12, at a little after two, when even
the neighbor's dog would usually be asleep, I heard the knock on
the door that I'd been waiting for, heavy and insistent. Betsy
shouted out in her dream, not sure if she'd heard the sound or
"Don't you worry," I told her. "It's somebody I was expecting. I
just thought they'd show up at a more civilized hour."
"Not some of your damn army buddies."
"Sort of," I said. "You get some sleep. I'll try to keep the noise
"You better not wake Miriam."
"Shhhhh," I said.
There were two men at the door, both of them wearing loosened ties
and white shirts that looked slept in.
"Kurt Kurtovic?" said the older of the two, holding up his FBI
"What can I do for you gentlemen?"
"Did you know a David Bigler?"
"He was killed in 1993."
I looked at these two under the porch light, one with his hair cut
high and tight like a retired drill sergeant, the other younger and
Mormonish, a missionary for the law. The moths and gnats hovered in
the glare just above their heads.
"That's right -- 1993. God, that seems like -- that is a
long time ago. Got into some sort of trouble in Atlanta. I've asked
Selma -- you know, my sister, his wife -- about it a million times,
but she doesn't tell me anything. Why don't you ask Selma about
"She said we should come talk to you."
I laughed. "Did she give you guys any coffee? I'll bet she didn't.
Come on in."
The pot was already brewing. My Betsy must have started it, then
gone back to the bedroom.
"You're not surprised to see us," said High-and-Tight.
"I'm glad to see you. After what happened this morning, I hope you
pulled every card on every weird-ass case, every unsolved mystery
-- every X-file you've got. Dave fits all those categories as far
as I can tell."
"What do you remember about the way he died?" asked the
"Hell, I don't know. He and Duke Bolide, who used to work up at the
cemetery, they got involved with some kind of crazy religious cult.
I mean, even crazier than the ones we usually get around here. They
went down to Atlanta. There was a shoot-up? Was that it? I don't
remember. But Dave wound up dead in that big CNN building, and some
Arab guy got hung from the rafters there. Did they ever find Duke?
We'd have heard if they did, I guess."
The Feds didn't say anything.
"Is that about the way you've got it?"
"It's the 'Arab guy' we'd like to know more about," said
"Can't help you."
"Can't or won't?"
"Can't -- and would like to. But I don't even know the name of the
Arab guy. Was he an Arab guy?"
Excerpted from THE SLEEPER © Copyright 2004 by Christopher
Dickey. Reprinted with permission by Simon & Schuster, Inc. All