The Sleeping Pills of the World (From the Desk of Bonnie Silvers) by Harry Kondoleon

BOMB 22 Winter 1988
022 Winter 1988
​Harry Kondoleon

Harry Kondoleon, Selbstportrait, 1984, collage, 17 × 12 inches.

Haven’t you done this? Promised yourself a new leaf and then, forgetful, turned over the same damp thing browning in the loam. I ask myself how I got this way because an ordinary childhood seemed to promise a life that only pretended to arrive and what I have instead, dark consolation, is the ghastly residue of a horror story. All women fear their husbands are, at heart, murderers. I was too wound up at the start of my marriage to recognize the facts and now when I look at them, the facts, I get goosebumps. I couldn’t have children. We adopted a little baby. The mother of the baby reappeared suddenly claiming she wanted it back. It wasn’t right, I thought, her giving the baby up for adoption and then wanting it back but I put myself in her shoes and gave in, miserably crushed and forever after, I thought, depressed.

I started taking sleeping pills not so much to sleep for I had no trouble doing that and was rushed off to a bright oblivion whenever my head would touch down. I took them during the day, sometimes in the middle of conversations, always to take the edge off of things because the unhappiness was becoming mammoth and making it hard to do even the simple things. My husband, Ralph—I’ll call him Ralph but you’ll probably figure out from the newspapers who he is and laugh at the malign dopiness of it all—Ralph tried to discourage me from the sleeping pills. He had other pills in mind, pills to put me in an early casket. I’ll review here quickly the grim scenario that’s made me what I am today.

It was one of those bright blue days late enough in autumn so you think at 4:30 the sky will suddenly crack-up and gaily snow. The one tree in front of our building, determined not to die, shook when I took its one leaf and that turned to cinders when I held it close to my heart. The building, in Tribeca, was a converted warehouse and our apartment opened onto a freight elevator, a steel contraption fixed with an electronic eye so the super could watch all day. On this day I consented to attend a party. Ralph said his attendance at a certain number of career-advancing parties was necessary each season in his field. In the past he had done things like pour different colored dirt in the desert in heaps of varying size but now he was welding long strips of metal and painting them with colors right out of the can. He said a lot of people were taking his work seriously for the first time and it was important he take advantage of the momentum.

At the party a woman with beautiful hair collided with me in the thin corridor between the living room and bedroom of heaped coats.

“I’m so sorry, that was completely my fault—and I’ve splashed my drink on your lovely sweater. Come to the bathroom with me, we’ll mat it with a towel.” And then in the bathroom, “I’m especially sorry because that’s an exceptionally beautiful sweater, expensive too I know because my sister has the same one. She was able to wear it right through her pregnancy, the shape is so boxy and the knit so expandable.” Then, later, sitting on the furs and leather coats on the bed, “Oh god, yes, my sister had a horrible time getting pregnant. She thought she’d tried every fertility drug known to man and then when they were in Mexico on vacation a doctor prescribed something that just suddenly worked! She’s so happy now.”

What a remarkably pleasant and pretty woman, I thought, and how nice to be able to think so after such a long time of wanting to meet no one and finding all conversations a punishing burden. Her name, she said, was Dora and we agreed to meet the following day for tea and then, after the tea, for several lunches until, quite unmysteriously, we became friends. I told her about our brief joy with our adopted baby and she swept aside the details saying that ultimately I should be glad the mother and child were reunited and they should be and wouldn’t I be happier with a baby of my own? She laughed at the trouble I’d told I’d had with having a baby and repeated the success story of her sister who had the same sweater I did. If she could have one why couldn’t I?

When I spoke to Ralph about Dora he was very nonchalant, busy clanging metals together and fusing them with a blowtorch. I told him about Dora’s sister’s success with the miracle fertility drug, that the Food and Drug Administration was always predictably late passing new break-through products and what did he think of me taking the pills and giving it a try?

I don’t know too much about love. I grew up in a small town and read books my mother chose from the library. I didn’t think she was censoring the world for me, just choosing books whose stories would please and educate me. When I married and moved to New York and met all kinds of people, I didn’t question their values or ways of life. My own husband’s loft had been acquired through nefarious dealings I overlooked in the spirit of the neighborhood. I thought that if you loved someone you took them as they were and ignored their faults. I don’t know. Now I don’t think I could ever love anyone.

After ten days of waiting for Dora to acquire the drug, I began the prescription. I think my terrible optimism obliterated the sensation of the capusles and I floated elated until, stricken with an overwhelming fatigue, I took to my bed. Ralph made a big show of taking the fertility pills away. It wasn’t worth endangering my health he said. He accused Dora of being a crackpot and threw the pills on the bathroom floor. Dora, the next day, said indeed I seemed to be having an adverse reaction to the pills and should cease taking them. An antagonism, I thought, had sprouted up between my husband and my friend, a rivalry to see who could most effectively guard my health. Ha. I’m too impatient to tell you this bit by bit and anyway isn’t it obvious? The two of them were lovers and these stupid pills, rather than making a birth, were making a death: mine. Poison, small doses. There was no chance meeting at the art party, I’d been dragged there by arrangement and bumped into and spilled upon by design. The lovers, between bouts of lovemaking had planned everything but that doesn’t surprise you. The evil of the world as prompted from love matches and desire is common material. Shock won’t enter the picture either when I add that, as usual, greed had been the axis by which everything turned. Intuitive, apparently to the point of genius, my parents despised Ralph and had practically forbade me to marry him. As penalty for disobeying them they granted us no financial support though, they stipulated, funds would be made available in the event of a grandchild. During our quick stint as adoptive parents, procedures had begun to transfer funds. You ask yourself, if this greedy bastard was scheming only for cash why wasn’t he satisfied to drain the sums as they arrived from the bank to the legally acceptable grandchild? The courtroom, months later, asked a dizzying array of questions, all variations on why and answered, in disarray, muffled, confusedly and in turns with sobs, by Dora who cried out she loved me.

I liked the courthouse. It was cool, the temperature, like a greenhouse I’d been in once and it was interesting hearing about my life in the form of facts. When my parents died and their fortune (which was chunky) became my inheritance, my husband, not satisfied to sit around with his girlfriend and plan my death, called up the poor woman who had put her baby up for adoption and paid her to take it back. This way, Ralph figured, he would get it all. When I insisted on taking the fertility pills against Dora’s new advice, she replaced the poison with confectioner’s sugar and risked her own life defying Ralph. Ralph defied was no sweetheart and threatened her repeatedly until, at his most threatening, she struck him with one of his workshop instruments and rendered him dead.

Because I showed signs of “anguish,” they kept me between appearances sequestered in a small comfortable room attended by a court official who said she was from New Hope, Pennsylvania. The woman from New Hope, to kill time, told me of the tragic series of events that led her from Pennsylvania to New York. Two sons and a husband dead from drunk driving she said and no way of making an income, a newspaper ad got her this job sitting with the guilty and the innocent. She lived now in a residency hotel, this too from the newspaper. She couldn’t show me the paper that day because they thought the headline GIRLFRIEND SAVES WIFE KILLS HUSBAND would disturb me.

On the last day the court said Dora could leave the jailhouse in five years with good behavior. Her lawyer made it seem she was trying to save me but, even so, she’d confessed to the poison pills part and I think the fact the whole thing had been attached to fertility and infants, the jury found it unsavory and decided some condemnation was in order. Everywhere I went people asked how I felt to know my husband wanted to kill me. Even though I could afford better, I took a room in the residency hotel the woman from New Hope told me about.

In her own environment she seemed a much more dejected soul than I’d first imagined. She had a few of her possessions from New Hope but mostly she’d made a new start and followed now the screen trade very closely, she introduced me to another woman who worked in a slave-like capacity for a world-famous artist and promised to introduce me to a movie star. They urged me to hone my story for the movies. It was the meeting of the movie star that clinched the deal on my present outlook.

At first I thought, how gracious of the star to have me up to her home. We could have easily met in a restaurant. In the elevator I caught a glimpse of myself in the porter’s glasses and saw my hat was on crooked and, although I checked and rechecked, the buttons of my coat seemed continuously buttoned wrong. So then I thought she’d had me up for a laugh, the character from the newspaper, almost murdered but not. When I told my movie plot (my life) I told it slowly and liltingly like an Irish ballad, the view of the world from the window over her shoulder hypnotized me and I felt very safe, sure that at last the Poe-like details of the last three years would have some purpose and I could call my life grist for someone’s mill.

I see the movie star’s apartment with its papier-mâché doll house, cats, dogs, a view of the world, tongue-in-cheek photos of horses, and a big painting of a mule. Although she didn’t say so and only shrugged and smiled, I think she had the same perception as the people in the jury: too unsavory.

The woman from New Hope took it very much in stride, my rejection, and when I complained of having trouble sleeping she presented me with a great store of sleeping tablets she had hoarded from all over the world. When things were going poorly for her and she was travelling with her husband and could foresee he would one day drink himself into the grave, she’d collected the pills from the house doctors of these terrible hotels in the hope of one day eating them all, the pills.

I have them now. She gave them to me and spread them out on my chenille bedspread, the pills between the avenues of cotton puffs. I fantasize daily about taking the pills, the whole lot of them. But since every night I have to take at least two, the arsenal gets littler and littler and the chance of dying from an impulsive fistful, smaller. Some of these pills, I know, are from Spain, others from Quebec. I am a lonely person who has never developed any of the resources most people have to get by in the world, make friends, take in diversions, experiment with chance. I have no judgment about love. My compatriots at the residency hotel have no love of judgment and sit in the lobby drinking, smoking, betting, living in a bitter present. They see me in the halls and regard me queerly, I’m not on the same drug they’re on and they mistrust me for it. I’m still sore at the movie star for being so symptomatic of Hollywood, for not knowing what’s going on in this country, what pills everyone’s on and what their dead dreams are. It’s with a small glass of water I leap from horror into comfort and I do it every night, the different tablets from the different cities and the same bright blackness following after.

Harry Kondoleon’s novel The Whore of Tjampuan is published by PAJ Publications. His plays are produced throughout the US and Canada and are anthologized in Wordplays 2, Best Short Plays of 1984, and Out Front: Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Plays published by Grove Press. His new play O + (Zero Positive) premiers at the New York Shakespeare Festival, early 1988.

Human Nature by Harry Kondoleon
For People Like Us: on Denis Johnson’s The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Lincoln Michel
Denis Johnson Largesse Banner

A posthumous collection cements the author’s reputation as a master of the short story.

The House That Donovan Built by Sarah Wang
Sarah Wang Banner

I caught Elma licking her front teeth in the rearview mirror. The gap between them seemed to be getting wider, like Jane Birkin, whose teeth spread considerably apart as she grew older, an oral Pangea situation. 

Laia Jufresa by Valeria Luiselli
Laia Jufresa 01 Bomb 137

The author’s first novel is set in Mexico City, but its themes of violence, grief, and solitude are truly global.

Originally published in

BOMB 22, Winter 1988

Robert Mapplethorpe by Gary Indiana, Nancy Lemann, Mike Kelley, Gary Stevens, Gleb Panfilov, Brice Marden by Saul Ostrow, and Rose English.

Read the issue
022 Winter 1988