The sleek white vans started to appear after 2 a.m., their bright hoods flashing like teeth under the string of streetlights. The whir of the vehicles that of an insect’s legs rubbing together. On the doors in slanted Arial, indicating forward motion: REM Transport. The whole neighborhood dark and still as the vans circulated from street to street, hesitating for stop signs, in an ever-widening radius, as if surveying the modest zip code of ranch houses and colonials. Seen from high above, the vans’ pale ovals like white blood cells pulsing through arteries.
Here and there turning into a driveway, headlights flaring on the evergreens, blanching the garage door. An upstairs bedroom light flicking on, then after a count of ten, the porch light spreading its glow. The door with a gold-pineapple knocker easing open, at the same moment as the van’s side door slides noiselessly open, and two attendants in blue scrubs disembark to aim a stretcher, swathed in a white sheet and pillow, at the front steps. A dog yapping from the backyard, grinding its chain on the pavement. A cloud swabbing the half-moon with a reddish tint.
A brief pause, inchoate murmurs, before the stretcher reemerges, a sleeping figure tucked into its folds, a cocoon with bumps of shoulder and knee. The van pulling away, the door of the house clicking shut from inside. Porch light snapped off, a count of 10, the upstairs light extinguished.
None of the passengers remembering a thing the next morning, a blackout as dense as from a drugged cocktail in a downtown bar. Only a tinge of shame, waking up on the grade school soccer field or on the shoulder of the highway or stretched out on some leaves in the woods. Shivering, under a thin white sheet, in the chill. No idea how they got there or what had happened to them. Feeling their arms and legs for bruises, their torsos for any subtle trauma, but finding themselves intact. Only a nagging itch from a bump on the nape of the neck. Probably a mosquito bite. Breathing in a deep sense of relief, as if they’d been sleeping for days.
Later, after trudging a mile or two home, a fragmentary glimpse coming back to them: an airy, curved atrium like an airport terminal, bright and featureless, punctuated by the sound of a soda machine clanking cans down into its slot. Everyone keeping to themselves, no idea who arranged the pickups and how widespread the transports are. Daily life drumming on as it always had—hitting the gym, long office lunches, pickups after school, messy affairs and petty embezzlements, fender benders and missed diagnoses and eruptions of unexpected bliss. But everything glazed with a thin gray layer as if not quite consciously absorbed. Someone remembering flyers with the headline “Sleepless?” on telephone poles and in laundromats a couple weeks earlier. The bottom edges ragged where phone numbers had been ripped off.
Then one clear blue autumn morning, sunlight slanting down the curved streets with names such as Laurel Drive and Shady Lane, a phalanx of lawn crews arriving with gas-powered leaf blowers slung over their shoulders. In lime-green safety jackets, black hoodies and floppy shoes, young boys of 10 or 11 with the scrubbed faces and earnest expressions of a choir. Maybe from the next town over. The blowers growling as they fanned out through the front yards, puffing up squalls of orange and yellow leaves. The collective noise a cacophony of chainsaws.
Pulling in the drive that night to help kids with homework or do takeout in front of the TV, feeling the barometric pressure had changed, like when a plane is landing; a swallow or yawn clears the ear canals. As if something ineffable had been sucked out of the neighborhood. A smell of ozone hanging in the air.
Soon after, a children’s librarian noticing that sparrows were no longer crowding the maple outside her window with their loud cackle. A retiree kneeling in the community garden wondering why the stone path was no longer silvered with snail paths. The bowl of milk a boy had been leaving on the back steps for the wiry, feral cats in the alley going undisturbed. A blanket of silence descending. The rumble of a jet overhead sounding far too close. The dings of the freight train crossing coming clear from streets away.
People’s hearing growing acute, as they started to drift toward the piano in the living room or dusty guitar leaning in the corner of the bedroom. Flutes disinterred from their velvet cases. Violins folded under chins. Fingers finding a new, springy agility. Melodies exuding in a golden warmth that flowed down spines, illuminating bodies from the inside like lanterns. So peaceful that dentist appointments were missed, lunches with friends forgotten. Somehow this fresh quota of sensation making up for everything else.
One Wednesday afternoon, an REM Transport van found by the police, skidded off the road into a bridge abutment. The back half cracked open like an egg. Inside, a cot with IV tubes dangling next to it. In racks bolted to the van’s walls, rows of vials labeled “Serotonin” with dates and street addresses. The license plate traced to REM corporate headquarters in Hartford, where inquiries were met by a blank wall of customer relations. A report filed but no further action taken; the officers too preoccupied rehearsing for a brass band concert on the town square next Sunday.
Gary Duehr (he/him) has taught creative writing for institutions including Boston University, Lesley University, and Tufts University. His MFA is from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. In 2001 he received an NEA Fellowship, and he has also received grants and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the LEF Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Journals in which his writing has appeared include Agni, American Literary Review, Chiron Review, Cottonwood, Hawaii Review, Hotel Amerika, Iowa Review, and North American Review. His books include Winter Light (Four Way Books) and Where Everyone Is Going To (St. Andrews College Press).