A Natural History: Benjamin Beckett


A Natural History of My Sleepless Nights

By Benjamin Beckett

Fig. 1: This is the house I grew up in. It's old and creaky inside.

As a child I heard bumps and cracks on summer nights, always coming out of my bedroom closet. My mother told me it was just the house settling. I bought into this explanation half-heartedly. I convinced myself it was true so I could sleep. Still, I laid with my back against the wall and the blanket covering my face like a caul.

The house must have settled down by the time I was a teenager, because there were no longer any bumps when I tried to fall asleep. When I sneaked around late at night, I was convinced that every step I took was the bump in the night that would wake my father.

Whenever I came home late from a rock show my mother would call for me from her bed. No matter how quietly I thought I entered, just as I was silently closing my bedroom door I would hear my mother call my name.  These were the only nights my parents were awake past ten o’clock. I think they wanted to satisfy themselves that I hadn’t been on drugs that night, that no one had cut me in the back of the head without me realizing it.[1]

On these occasions my father said nothing. Or he merely said goodnight as I left my parents’ room. My mother would never fail to tell me how smoky I smelled. It was just a really smoky place, I’d say. This answer seemed to satisfy her, and it was true. Growing up in Detroit with permissive parents, I had too many opportunities to do the kinds of things you end up hearing about on the evening news. I knew that the man in the Dodge Intrepid that idled all day by the park sold pot and powder. I knew the Iraqis who ran the liquor store would look the other way as long as I paid cash. I knew the cops mostly didn’t respond to calls that didn’t involve “an imminent threat to human life.” But I never bought drugs. I never bought cigarettes. I never made trouble.

On the nights I stayed home, I couldn’t sleep. In the summer with the bedroom windows open I could hear bass bumping from old Cadillacs cruising Outer Drive. In the summer it was too hot to cover my face with a blanket. The silence after the noisy car, or the siren, or the hours of smooth jazz the neighbors blasted from their back yard—the silence, not the noise, kept me awake.

We lived in an old house. It was impossible to walk to the kitchen for a glass of water without making dozens of squeaks and bumps. The nights I spent most innocently were the ones I most worried I would wake my parents. The nights I was most the good boy were the ones I most worried they would accuse me of being bad.

I live in another town now. It’s a safer, quieter town. Nobody plays glass-rattling bass with their windows rolled down at three in the morning. Nobody idles around the park and after almost a year the men who run the liquor store still ask me for my ID every time I go in. I lock all the doors and windows whenever I go out, but I don’t need to. I still can’t sleep through the night.

[1] Once, I was kicked in the face by a crowd surfer. I lost my glasses that night, but no blood. I snatched his shoe off. Who still crowd surfs? Who crowd surfs in a venue with less than 100 people? Who crowd surfs to a band that incorporates pedal steel?


Ben Beckett grew up in Detroit and now works in a library in Michigan.



“A Natural History of My Sleepless Nights” is part of the Natural Histories Project. Click here to learn more >>


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