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I pull on my shoes and jacket and reach to unlatch the front door of our houseboat. Loud screams stop me in my tracks. I peer out the window. LaBette is marching up and down our narrow dock pulling her luggage behind her and shouting words I know from past experience I prefer not to understand. Anger steams off of her. Each high-pitched scream sounds like the caw of an irate crow—a cranky, nasal, accusatory curse. I stay inside until she’s gone.

LaBette first came into our world a quarter century ago when our next-door houseboat neighbor Mike married Hope, LaBette’s adopted mother. LaBette was already an adult and already a mother of one or two, later three kids. She came with Mike and Hope to our houseboat for our 4th of July party. We had a slant view of Seattle’s Lake Union fireworks. My husband Robby and I welcomed her. She managed social interactions then, sort of, and still does once in a blue moon. Yet something was off about her. Her gaze bounced around the room and her end of a conversation was often left hanging. Hope helped LaBette hold down a job as a housecleaner. Hope gave her cleaning supplies and drove her to jobs, as a mother would drive a child to the first day of school. Mike told us things were difficult with LaBette. When we saw her coming and going on our shared dock, we greeted her and she mumbled in response. If she was screaming at the world then, we didn’t hear her doing it. But likely the screams were forming.

 

*  *  *

 

Sleep disturbance has plagued me all my life. I was a sleepwalker throughout childhood. I still scream in my sleep. Not all the time, in fact rarely. I don’t remember the actual doing of these things. But my family remembers. Also, startling awake downstairs in the living room with my mother a few feet off watching me warily and speaking to me in a worried voice was pretty strong evidence. My brain tried to make sense of the fact that I was no longer upstairs in my bed, but my brain was also still in the liminal zone. How did I get down the stairs? Were my eyes open or closed? People sometimes boast I’ve done that so many times I could do it in my sleep. For a sleepwalker, that is fact.

 

*  *  *

 

LaBette’s children were taken from her. Here’s how Mike tells it. LaBette and her children were living in a house. I don’t know where, Poulsbo maybe. LaBette’s boyfriend wasn’t there. Was he perhaps escaping the madness growing inside LaBette? It was winter. LaBette got it in her head the house was full of fumes, gas, poisons. She opened wide all the windows and doors. A neighbor called Child Protective Services, who came and found LaBette and her children huddled in blankets. They took the children. LaBette became homeless.

Mike and Hope got LaBette subsidized housing. Once moved in, LaBette perceived that the air was toxic. She cut the cord that powered the refrigerator because evil was coming through it. She ripped up the carpet because poisons were below. The stove was emitting fumes. So LaBette packed up her luggage and rolled out, shouting that people were trying to poison her. Mike and Hope had to pay for the repairs. Three rounds of this. Always the same result.

Now LaBette only and always sleeps outdoors, no matter the temperature. She wouldn’t be caught dead sleeping indoors. In part I understand. I know that new carpet and paint can off-gas, although I wouldn’t say evil was coming through the refrigerator cord. Still LaBette may be the canary in the coal mine, the one who escaped rather than be killed by chemical toxins. But LaBette’s choice to live outdoors doesn’t bother me. It’s the screaming that makes LaBette intolerable—the sudden blast of her shrill voice. If you can make out her words, they are offensive, racist, angry, and mean. Her eyes impale you with their madness, rage, and condescension. You want to cover your ears and hide your eyes. You want LaBette to go away.

 

*  *  *

 

My sleepwalking increased when I was eleven and first had asthma. Once I woke up standing in front of the kitchen cabinet where we kept Bayer aspirin, Band-Aids, Pepto-Bismol, rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, castor oil, Vicks VapoRub, Milk of Magnesia, and Merthiolate. Was I reaching for the bottle of blue pills that Mom gave me for asthma? Would I have taken one in my sleep? More than one?

 

*  *  *

 

LaBette is strong, solidly muscular, and always healthy. She has excellent posture. Her long thick hair falls down her back or is tied in a ponytail. She has a round face, brown skin, and brown eyes. She never takes drugs or alcohol and never hangs out with other homeless people. Hope had LaBette evaluated by Seattle Mental Health. They determined she is not a danger to herself or others and therefore cannot be involuntarily committed. So with her rolling bags in tow, LaBette moves along her usual routes within the gravitational pull of Mike and Hope’s houseboat. LaBette commands every scene she is in as if she is the queen and we are her subjects, and pretty pissant subjects at that. From a certain distance, LaBette looks put-together. But then you get close and this is what you see: LaBette is angry, furious, fuming, scream-in-your-face mad.

 

*  *  *

 

As a Brownie Scout, I looked forward to getting my wings and flying up to become a Girl Scout. Girls Scouts got to go on a campout, got to sleep in a tent at Columbia Park along the Columbia River. I was excited about doing this, but my parents said no. The reason? I might sleepwalk out of the tent and into the river. I told them I would not do that, told them I don’t sleepwalk every night, told them even if I did I would wake up before walking into the river. But the answer was no. So I went down to Columbia Park with all the other newly winged Girl Scouts. We learned to follow trails, we cooked hobo stew made of pieces of beef, carrots, potatoes, onion, water, and salt in a big tin can over the fire. We finished by toasting marshmallows on sticks we had whittled to a point. We sang camp songs. And then my father came to take me home. I knew I would miss out on ghost stories with flashlight-below-the-chin zombie effects, would miss out on secrets, jokes, and girl games. I knew the other girls knew why I couldn’t stay in the tent. I hated sleepwalking.

 

*  *  *

 

LaBette screams at Mike, at Robby, at me, at people passing, at no one, at the sky. She screams that we are drug addicts, that we are trying to kill her. She screams that we are bad, that she knows what we did, and she will have us arrested. She screams about Mexicans and spits the term “chili nigger” into the air. She screams invective and she screams gibberish. Her voice is that of a shrew, a witchy screech that makes our dog Misha hide behind my legs.

Because of LaBette’s screaming, there are now boundaries. Mike no longer allows LaBette on his houseboat. We no longer allow LaBette on our little two-houseboat dock. Various cafes in the neighborhood no longer allow LaBette in. She has been kicked out of Trader Joe’s and Safeway for screaming at their employees. Some of those boundaries are firm. Hope tells us she sets boundaries but Hope’s boundaries sway in the current as if they are jellyfish. Hope raised LaBette and Hope prefers to hope for the best. Hope sometimes allows LaBette to come down our dock and onto their houseboat when she thinks we are all elsewhere. I used to think LaBette screamed at all of us but never at Hope, the one she comes to see, the one who helps her, the one she calls Mom. Then I came upon LaBette screaming one of her worst tirades at Hope.

 

*  *  *

 

Sleep experts say that we are not dreaming during night terrors—sleepwalking or screaming. We are not in the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep of dreams. Or nightmares. We are (usually anyway) in the first hours of non-rapid eye movement sleep that precedes REM. It is called delta or slow-wave sleep. Slow-wave sleep is good for us. It’s where we secrete the beneficial growth hormones that help our muscles and tissue heal, where the brain is restored, where new memories are consolidated. It is also where—if disturbed—some of us experience night terrors.

The American Psychiatric Association tells us that, “The universal feature of night terrors is inconsolability, very similar to that of a panic attack. During night terror bouts, people are described as bolting upright with the eyes wide open and a look of fear and panic on their faces. They will often scream. Furthermore, they will usually sweat, exhibit rapid breathing, and rapid heart rate.” All true. In my case, the inconsolability comes from not being able to convince Robby that something evil is at the door or in my closet or right beside the bed. He doesn’t jump up to fight off the intruder but instead tries to soothe my panic. I shout against his calm. “No, it’s there. It’s there.” I point. I insist. Eventually his voice takes precedence in my consciousness. The liminal threat fades and leaves me exposed, confused, chagrinned, and eventually apologetic. I get up to read because my heart is pounding and I know I won’t drop back into sleep. Besides, sleep is where this happens.

 

*  *  *

 

LaBette always wants something from Hope—cash, coat, phone, tarp, towel, suitcase, or a ride somewhere. Never mind that Hope has given LaBette these same things repeatedly. In the years since LaBette has chosen to be homeless, I have seen her go through at least twenty suitcases. Usually she has two suitcases and does the suitcase relay, pulling one down the road and then setting it upright, like a dog on a stay command. Then she goes back to roll the second bag to join the first. It looks like a dance in which LaBette’s luggage may lead, follow, twirl, dip, or stand. She makes her way down Fairview from South Passage Point Park to Good Turn Park to Hamlin Park in this manner. People in the neighborhood know her routine and don’t mess with the unattended bag, neither the one ahead nor the one behind. LaBette would shout down on you like a banshee if you so much as got close.

Right now she has one big bag that she pushes. From a sufficient distance and in silhouette, she looks like a woman pushing a baby stroller. But it is LaBette—well-muscled, moon-faced, bat-shit crazy LaBette. She pushes her bag down Fairview as we pull in to our parking space. What’s in LaBette’s suitcase? Mike says an urn of her birth mother’s ashes. Hope says LaBette’s suitcase holds pots and pans. I ask if she uses them. Hope says probably not but LaBette imagines she will.

 

*  *  *

 

For me, it is often a noise that triggers my night terror—the click of a door lock, a knock, a bark, a scrape, a rustle, a bump, a thump. When I was a child, my family never wanted to disturb me. My sisters learned which step on the stairs would creak and made a point to skip over it. They had all heard my blood-curdling yells. In the liminal zone of slow-wave sleep, any disturbance becomes a dark and dangerous threat. Or lack of air triggers my night terror, being in a room that is too small or too still makes my sleeping self believe I am in a coffin and will be buried alive if I don’t scream and leap out of bed. The threat feels as real as things get in the liminal zone.

 

*  *  *

 

LaBette walked into our neighbor Malcolm’s yellow house—now neither Malcolm’s nor yellow—by the University Bridge. He told her to get out. Soon after, she threw a rock through his window. Jules escorted LaBette out of Louisa’s Café when she shouted curses at their employees. Soon after, a rock came through his window. No one saw LaBette actually throw a rock, but Malcolm saw her just after it happened, walking away with her suitcase in tow. I set boundaries with LaBette and I don’t like the idea of LaBette throwing rocks.

 

*  *  *

 

In 2005, I took my first solo trip to Bahia, Brazil where Robby has family. I flew to Miami and spent the night in the Miami Airport Hotel. My tiny room felt enclosed (the windows did not open) and way too hot, even with the AC cranked. I called the desk and they sent an engineer who fiddled with the AC. He declared it improved. It wasn’t improved. I went to sleep but woke to find myself standing in the hotel hallway. I was in my nightie and shocked to realize I had walked out of my hotel room. (I had not sleepwalked in years.) Had I screamed? Was hotel security coming? Luckily the door had not closed completely so I slipped back into my room where I locked the door and waited for my heart to stop pounding.

 

*  *  *

 

Mike files an anti-harassment order against LaBette and he asks Robby and me to be with him in court. We enter the elegant oval lobby of the King County Courthouse, walk across the intricate inlaid marble floor with a pendant light above. We ride up to the third floor and find Mike in the courtroom. We sit beside him. Hope arrives separately. “I just saw LaBette,” she says. “She was yelling at the security guards. She didn’t see me.” Even Hope prefers to be off LaBette’s radar. “I’m not going to sit with you guys,” Hope says. “I can’t do that.” So she sits on a bench across the aisle as if she is there for the bride and we are with the groom. Then after a while, Hope moves to take a seat on the bench behind us.

A woman walks through the courtroom and into the judge’s chambers. She emerges seconds later wearing her robe and we all rise. She calls the names on the docket. Mike responds when he is called. No LaBette. The judge says we will take a short break and start again. Just then the door bangs open and LaBette shouts, “I’m here. I’m LaBette,” as if she is the star of this judicial variety show.

“Please be quiet and take a seat,” the judge says. The judge calls Mike and LaBette forward. LaBette stands with her feet apart, like an Amazon ready for battle. She wears a skirt and layers of shirts and sweaters. She looks ready for anything. The judge asks Mike why he is filing the order. Mike explains. He is soft-voiced, respectful. He states the case so gently that I worry the judge will not see her way to granting it. But then true to form, LaBette points at Mike. “He’s a drug dealer,” she tells the judge. The judge cuts LaBette off. “We are here to talk about your behavior, Ms. Smulan.” The judge asks Mike to continue. LaBette shouts, “He stole my suitcase.” She juts her chin at Mike. “Or his people did.” She turns around and nods at Robby and me as if she is a mafia don issuing a hit on us. The judge says, “This hearing is about your behavior. If you want to file a case against Mr. Regis, you are welcome to do that.” LaBette gives an emphatic nod as if to say that is exactly what she will do. The judge grants a 500-foot LaBette-free zone around Mike’s houseboat for one year. “Thank you, your honor,” Mike says. Robby and I walk out with him.

Hope joins us. She is wound up. “I don’t know how I feel about this. Maybe it isn’t necessary. LaBette’s been so good lately.”

“Well, it’s helpful to have clear boundaries,” I say, though this is not something I would normally say. LaBette comes out of the courtroom, glares at us, and rolls her bag toward the office where you file a case. Robby moves us toward the elevators. We go home and Robby measures 500 feet from Mike’s houseboat. For a year we will have some breathing room.

 

*  *  *

 

I consider the liminal zone. The word liminal comes from limen, a Latin word for threshold. The definition of liminal in anthropology is the disorientation that comes in the middle stage of rituals, in the transition. In the liminal zone, there is a dissolution of the old order but not yet a new order. It is the in-between, the limbo, bardo, middle stage, the twilight zone, the fault line, the no man’s land between borders. The liminal zone can bring heightened awareness and euphoria. Or it can bring danger, uncertainty, and fear. Being in the liminal zone may make us prone to hauntings by ghosts, themselves liminal beings.

 

*  *  *

 

LaBette’s madness escalates as my sleep terrors diminish, or so it seems. Could this reverse? Are we ships passing in the fog others can’t see? Do I understand LaBette more than I want to admit? Are we linked by our transits along the dark margins? Is the threat I perceive in that liminal zone of sleep disturbance the same as the threat LaBette perceives in her perpetual liminal world?

 

 

About the Author
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Janet lives with her husband on their Seattle houseboat, the floating nation of Tui Tui. Her writing has appeared in Raven Chronicles, Bayou, Porcupine, PassagerThe MacGuffinNorth Dakota Quarterly, The Evansville ReviewThe Massachusetts ReviewPilgrimage, River Teeth, and Chautauqua. She is currently at work on a collection of personal essays inspired by her friendship with Skagit tribal elder, the late Vi Hilbert. www.janetyoder.com