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Ellie May Mandell Fiction

Six Steps to Good Sleep

by Ellie May Mandell

Gideon read an article: children who were disadvantaged within the family have chronic and serious health troubles in later life. Great, she thought, something new to worry about. Her mother, who had been of all things a family therapist, had surely read similar articles and maybe even written some. In moments of weakness, middle-aged Gideon imagined her wealthy mother might bequeath her some money in a final act of redemption. Must beat that down, she told herself. Must prepare myself for one last punch in the face. Gideon’s favorite movie line was by Ramsey Bolton in Game of Thrones, “If you think this story has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.” The maladies listed in the article and the prospect of disinheritance pressed on her.

Gideon’s father hit her. Too hard, too often, and for invented reasons, Gideon thought then and still, fifty years later. Had he resented the moral injury the child inflicted on his wife? Gideon had poor stamina and became startled at sudden noises. Maybe she offended him as an imperfect creation. Or, the darkest explanation, he did it because he wanted to and saw she was alone in the world. When grownup Gideon woke at night, memories of his habit and her mother’s blankness prevented her from sleeping. Probably lack of sleep was the root cause of the health troubles of all of those least-favorite children, she thought. She decided to write an article herself, in the form of a list: “Six Steps to Good Sleep.”

Step One: Read ten books and forty articles about how to get better sleep. Compile a list of the one hundred or so recommendations. Add “Eliminate the following unacknowledged neuro-disruptors: smoked foods, non-organic foods, medications, and gluten.” Implement all.

When Gideon grew breasts, her father stopped hitting her. Instead, he scratched or jiggled his penis and balls while wearing running shorts near her and he let his towel drop when leaving the bathroom after a shower. He told jokes, any one of which would have cost him his job at the university in a later time. When she was fifteen, Gideon worked in a sandwich shop. One evening she sat in the car of a boy who had given her a ride home and smooched with him for a while. The next day her father told her she had to move out of the family home and into the garage apartment, a dingy and foul-smelling cash cow he usually rented to his female graduate assistants. “Your mother and I agree that you are the kind of person whose fundamental arrogance is damaging to their family,” he said. The apartment gave Gideon a headache. After three nights of sleeping badly from the moldering carpets and cheap furnishings and waiting for her older sister, Ruth, or her mother to visit her, she left her hometown on a Greyhound bus and landed, down but not out, in a small town in western Massachusetts.

Now, grownup Gideon and her husband of three decades lived in the same small town. Their house, which her husband had inherited, sat high on its foundation among smaller houses. It had a western extension with the kitchen on the first floor and, on the second, a bedroom with windows on three sides. Too big of a view, Gideon thought, especially west to the Berkshire foothills. She kept the blinds closed except to the north, where a shaggy privet hedge and a rootbound maple formed a comforting shield.

The west wing bedroom had a bed next to the north-facing window, a side table nearby, and a chair for lounging at the far side of the room. On this morning in early April, Gideon lay face up with her heels on the windowsill and her palms open, in an attitude of acceptance. She waited for the truth to come to her.

Step Two: Consider where, within the objects and surfaces that you eat, touch, or breathe near, there might be any of the three hundred thousand industrial chemicals whose effects on human health, in isolation or in combination, have never been tested or measured. How can these chemicals not disrupt your neurology and therefore your sleep? Eliminate suspicious exposures. This will require major lifestyle adjustments.

That mothers love their offspring equally is only one lie of many told to children to make them behave in ways supporting a civil society, Gideon thought. When the lies grow to be too huge or too numerous, society cracks open and reveals its inner corruption. A sort of reckoning was coming regarding the biggest lie, a lie of omission, as it happened. This lie was amorphous, difficult to describe since its primary components didn’t have a proper vocabulary. The lie had to do with the true costs of the three hundred thousand, as Gideon thought of them, although of course every day more were created, churned out through computer aided design and tweaks to existing ones.

Gideon had unusual insight into these insufficiently-regulated catalysts of profit. Her childhood lack of physical wellness had calcified, through a series of mysterious and violent health upsets, each one requiring years of imperfect recovery, into heightened sensitivity to the toxins around her. Even now, with her health on a slow upswing, she often felt inexplicably low and she avoided leaving her house. When she considered the faulty newborns, compromised young people, and cancer-ridden adults around her, Gideon knew she was witnessing a slow-motion cracking open and revealing of the hidden costs and scale of this one big lie. Her illness was the harbinger of a coming collapse. Her life exemplified, in accelerated and exaggerated form, what was happening to everyone else, only they didn’t know it.

Gideon began to lie on the west wing bed for a few hours every day, looking at the sky and composing her listicle in her head. One day there was a tiny crusty turd on the windowsill where she intended to rest her feet. She dislodged and disposed of it with a damp piece of toilet paper, then washed her hands carefully. So the house did have a bat this year, she thought. She leaned her elbows on the windowsill for a while, watching the birds in the yard, then lay down again.

A few years earlier, Gideon had pulled back the blankets to get into bed and a bat lay snuggled on her pillow. “When did you last wash your hair,” her husband said in more of an accusation than a question. “She must enjoy your musky odor.” To keep things simple, the two of them assigned each new bat a random gender. Another time, one of the tiny brown cooties visited Gideon in her home office daily for several weeks. Of all the rooms in the house he could have explored, he chose the one where she was sitting, each day flying at her face first, then making repeated circuits of the room as she cooed at him. “You are just adorable,” she said over and over. “Come visit me any time.”

One winter evening Gideon and her husband were watching a movie in one of the third-floor bedrooms. From the attic above came the sounds of a party or maybe a fracas. At least two but maybe many soft bodies scrabbled and flopped toward each other and then away again, bound to the attic floor for once rather than to its roofbeams. Back and forth, shuffling and scratching. Then a pause, then more shuffling and scratching. Gideon turned off the movie and tried to discern the mood and motivations of the creatures. They seemed to be dragging each other back and forth. She imagined or maybe she actually heard through the ceiling the multilayered squeaks of their conversation.

“Don’t flinch when they fly at you,” she told her husband after yet another evening of sweet-talking a bat into leaving the house through an open window. “They know exactly where you are, so there is no way they’ll hit you. They just want to look into your face.”

“Easier said than done and you’d better stop playing with them,” her husband said. “You’ll get a nip and we’ll have to take you to the ‘mergency for a round of rabies shots.” “I would never reach for them and they have no reason to touch me,” she said.

Step Three: It might take as long as ten years for your neurology to fully manifest the results of Steps One and Two. Stick with it.

I know you can change life’s trappings, Gideon thought, lying on her back again under the high ceilings of the west wing bedroom. But can I stop having the same dreams? Traveling with difficulty across an unfamiliar urban landscape, or in a nighttime city I knew long ago, but that is now altered so the streets don’t go where they should and the busses don’t come. Or a bus arrives but I fumble with change so I can’t get on. Finally arriving at my home but it has become derelict. When Gideon told her husband about the dreams, he said it was only her brain offloading garbage, but Gideon knew the dreams were witness marks, echoes of long-ago family sorrows. I want to wake up in the morning with a sense of contentment, she thought. I want to have dreams where I am sitting in a beautiful and expansive room, watching filtered sunlight play on a warm pastel wall. This is the change I want for myself.

Gideon’s maternal grandmother, Florence, had changed her own life in her fifties. Gideon, looking at the high ceiling of the sky through the new buds on the maple tree, older than the house, opened herself to Florence’s voice. She imagined Florence telling her story, beginning with the death of Gideon’s grandfather in the early 1940s.


My husband died in the war and I sought consolation. I loved seeing myself reflected in mirrors inside fancy restaurants and in shop windows. I began buying colorful tweeded suits and dresses, and shoes made in Italy out of soft leather. I wore the clothing and shoes on outings to buy more of the clothing and the shoes, and I had lunch or dinner in sparkly places with other women who bought and wore these things. I kept myself trim and fit and put myself into a happy sleep each night with memories of my own tidy ankle and slender calf, looking like a soft-focus movie shot. Silk hosiery, fragrant and rubbing softly against the silk crepe lining of a suit skirt, where the lining was sewn to the hem tape with tiny stiches, and the hem tape was sewn to the tweed in yet more tiny stitches. The shoes that were themselves as soft as silk.

After my parents died, I inherited my mother’s button collection. I was thrilled to unwrap the strings of finely-wrought multiples, each cluster a testament to my own virtue. There were cardboard and cloth tapestries of sewn-on buttons, called collector’s cards, like cathedral windows but telling of domesticity and family rather than the turmoil of the biblical stories.

I began searching for buttons in antique shops and at auctions. When I found special buttons, I felt that the craftspeople and merchants of the past had saved them for me, who deserved them more than other buyers because I alone could discern the stories they told of thrift, endeavor, industry, and the embrace of a personal and tightly-held beauty. I began to see how one or another shipment of buttons from Paris made its way to the communities throughout my state. I savored the scraps of cloth and the twisted threads attached to used buttons as well as the images and typefaces on the cards of unused sets. I discerned, in the notations on the cardstock of the collector’s cards, the intertwined lives of the women who saved them and traded them. I saved and traded them myself, to complete certain sets, or to make up cards that reached for what I felt was a true homage to their spirit. Buttons express the ideals of their time and the amasser of buttons internalizes these ideals. I was changed by the hours and years I spent with them.

At first, I had doubts about how long these joys would last in my heart. But as the years turned into decades, I knew that wearing the beautiful clothes and buying and sorting buttons could bring me a lifetime of happiness. Then, when I was in my early fifties, something changed in me. I no longer felt I was building something. I felt I was chasing something. I wrapped the suits and the dresses in tissue paper and packed them away. I stuffed sachets of cedar shavings into the toes of the Italian shoes and stacked their boxes high in the backs of my closets. I took a class in oil painting at a nearby community college.


During her late teens and into her twenties, Gideon tried to repair the relationship with her family. Her father agreed to send her the amounts her university charged for tuition, room, and board, so she went to college. She made up the difference between what her father sent and her actual expenses by working parttime during the school year and fulltime plus during the summers. She traveled to her hometown twice a year when Ruth was also visiting, staying in a motel rather than at her parents’ home.

One year, while she visited with her parents and Ruth on Christmas Day, her father picked a fight with her over a box of family snapshots, worked himself into a foaming rage, and accused her of theft. As Gideon fled the house, Ruth said she would come by Gideon’s motel. Gideon waited for Ruth, reluctant to leave the motel in case she ran into her father on the street or missed Ruth’s visit. The following evening, Ruth came to Gideon’s motel room with a high school friend in tow, both of them dressed for a party. Ruth asked Gideon if she could borrow her diaphragm for a couple of days. Gideon had become increasingly ill-feeling from the stale air in the motel room. As the three young women stood in the depressing room, Gideon understood that she and Ruth were fundamentally different. Ruth, whose mother loved her, could afford to move through the world heedlessly. There was room for her to be whoever she wanted to be. Gideon’s world was precarious. Forces within it troped toward chaos and loss. Gideon turned Ruth down, unable to conceptualize her diaphragm being used by someone else’s body. Ruth told Gideon repeatedly with minor variations, more loudly each time, that she Gideon was the kind of person who was a real asshole.

Step Four: To reduce agita, learn not to care how you appear to others and don’t look at yourself in the mirror. When pressing your naked body against your loved one, inhale deeply and then exhale through the column of warm joy that your torso has become.

After the disastrous and final Christmas visit, Gideon’s mother wrote her occasional cards with news about her garden plantings or her work. These cards, in their imagery and what hints at provenance Gideon could discern from the printing on the backs, suggested travel to European museums and gift shops. Gideon was unable to stop herself from opening them because in each one she hoped to find a declaration of true regard. Every few years she came across a little pile of the cards and threw them away.

One day Gideon’s mother telephoned to say that Florence had died. “There are two kinds of people in the world,” Gideon’s mother said, after wondering out loud why she and Gideon weren’t close. “Some few, like you, see the world only in black and white. Most, like me, see shades of gray.” Gideon, surprised, said that they hadn’t spent time together in many years. “Are you criticizing my life decisions?” her mother seemed genuinely perplexed. The two women spoke past each other and interrupted each other, both of them confused and miserable. Gideon’s mother seemed to be talking to a character in a play. Mercifully, the flow of notecards ended after this telephone call. Gideon never talked to or saw her mother again.

Several months after Florence died, Ruth called. They had sold the contents of Florence’s house, including her closets full of clothing and her various collections, for a single sum to an antique dealer. Items deemed not valuable, including many, many boxes of what Ruth called crap buttons, they had put on the curb on trash day. Florence had made a practice of giving away her finished oil paintings to libraries, municipal buildings, hospitals, and other non-profits throughout her region, so there weren’t stacks and stacks of art to dispose of. Ruth didn’t quantify Florence’s wealth, which, she did say, had grown during her lifetime.

“I wish you hadn’t argued with Mom,” Ruth said. “She’s very upset. Her mother just died. You are the kind of person who is very inconsiderate when times are hard for other people.” Ruth’s tone became harsh, as though she was distancing herself according to a plan she had made before the call. Gideon understood that she was about to lose something that she very much wanted to keep. In the crevasse at her feet, she saw that Ruth was ready to be rid of her.

A few years after moving to the big house, Gideon started buying buttons herself, on eBay. It calmed her to search for them and it calmed her to clean and sort them. Her favorite era was from about 1880 to about 1940, during which some portion of society’s collective joy and delight had been channeled into the design and production of buttons. The Industrial Revolution had provided the initial means for experimentation with new materials and techniques, and a creative impulse, perhaps even a mania, had settled on buttons as an expression of aspiration, culture, and technology. Of course there were lovely and interesting buttons from before 1880 or after 1940, but for these sixty years the sheer volume and exuberance of disparate types, designs, materials and themes made for a golden age. They must have been over-produced, or perhaps suppliers were responding even then to the hoarding instincts of their customers, because vast quantities were still available, many unused, on the eBay button markets.

Now, Gideon and her husband had been living in the big house for about ten years. Each spring Gideon chose one of the large rooms, then spent the fair weather detailing the woodwork, restoring the sash windows, and painting in a light and cheery color. How can I free myself from the burden of my feelings for those people, she asked herself while scrubbing ancient grime from lead-painted window sills and scraping smears from wavy panes of glass. Once a duckling has been imprinted, can they ever love anyone else properly?

Gideon had developed the ability to discern from the overall texture in the grainy eBay photographs whether or not a particular lot contained buttons from manufacturers who had truly tried to make them as delightful as they could. She wondered if her grandmother’s collection, which she had never seen, was swirling through the eBay listings. Maybe she had unknowingly acquired some of Florence’s buttons already. Perhaps the boxes discarded in front of Florence’s house had been salvaged and some of the buttons inside had appeared in the mixed lots Gideon tended to bid on. She didn’t buy the more refined and expensive individual buttons but often acquired highly-crafted ones among her rough and tumble batches. When she died, all of her own buttons would enter the swirling stream again, the most valuable picked out for individual resale, the rest photographed in loose piles for small money.

Gideon came to intuit that most collectible buttons had not been produced as practical objects. There was such excess, both flowing through the marketplace and temporarily settled in the homes of middle-aged women such as herself and Florence. So many were delicate, or unlaunderable, or both. Instead, they were an expression of animal craving for small and inherently useless objects of beauty and joy. Having lost her original tribe except for a faint connection to her sister, she felt a shadow of kinship with other button fanciers, whom she only knew through the bidding wars.

“I can feel my heart expanding to include all the new batches I get in,” she said to her husband as they lay in bed together one morning. “I can’t explain it.” Her husband laughed at her. Gideon reached and cupped his quiet fruits, feeling their gentle weight. “These are going to make me happy soon,” she said. The soft and discretely hairy mass began twitching in her hand.

Step Five: If you have chronic bad sleep, you are a wounded animal. The world is not kind to damaged creatures. Develop the habits of a careful person and stay home as much as you can.

Gideon decided to make the rest of the warm weather a repeating cycle: check the button markets, lie in the west wing or look out its north window, play with buttons, get a good night’s sleep. No painting this year. Maybe if she rested deeply for long enough, she thought, she could find a way to cast off her sorrows.

Gideon’s thoughts kept returning to the one family member she sort-of still had. When they were both young, Ruth used to hit her sometimes. Fair play to Ruth for the way she acted toward me, Gideon thought. It was every elder sister’s job to treat the younger like a little shit. But maybe not into adulthood, as a touchstone affirming your own state of grace. Gideon in turn watched as Ruth’s two marriages imploded, seemingly from a shortfall of practical empathy. She came to understand that their parents’ treatment of herself had taught Ruth, by example, the negligible value of day-to-day kindness.

“Thank you for your last letter and for the ones before that,” Ruth wrote on a postcard when they were both in their late thirties. Ruth was cagey about family news in written correspondence and during the sisters’ occasional visit together, but Gideon found enough clues to piece together their mother’s story. After Florence’s death, Ruth and Gideon’s mother had changed her own life in ways she must have been waiting years to implement, so immediate was the transformation. She gave her ill-tempered husband a large chunk of Florence’s cash to mollify him. She subsidized Ruth’s expenses so both of them could maintain flexible and lightly-scheduled careers. She embarked, with Ruth, on decades of foreign travel and the shopping that makes foreign travel extra-special. One of Ruth’s postcards was from a wildlife refuge in Brazil that led boat tours to see the great macaws in their natural habitat. Another was from a vineyard in the South of France offering summer cooking courses. Over the decades Gideon got a handful of snapshots of happy, happy, happy Ruth with scenic backgrounds and dressed in expensive hiking or skiing or dining outfits, looking at the photographer who was her lifelong and best friend. Like Florence had and like Gideon was trying to do, Gideon’s mother had designed and executed her own rebirth after a long period of quiescence.

I never begat a child but at least I never wished my child gone, thought Gideon. Her uterus was dormant, now a shriveled plum only to be watched in case it metastasized and tried to kill her. It isn’t death I’m worried about so much as illness, she thought. Fuck death. Serious illness is the real bastard. Was there any way to find out if it was her own ill health that had concentrated her family’s disregard? Perhaps Gideon had had an early illness that severed her mother’s attachment to her. Her father, who for all of his self-centered posturing and testiness sometimes told a relevant truth, surely knew what had happened. Were there any of his words, deciphered and recast, that explained her loss of her mother’s affection? If only I could be young again and pay more attention this time, Gideon thought. I could discern their flaws and steel myself against future disappointments. I could understand my illness from the beginning and prevent its escalation. Maybe they foresaw my understanding of their failings and that is why they were so desperate to be rid of me.

The Sixth and Final Step to Good Sleep: Resolve the mysteries and losses of your past. Anticipate and mitigate those to come.

In June the first of the monarch butterflies arrived in the yard. Gideon, checking the markets, came across the leavings of a once-mighty collection. Like the bleached and scattered skeleton pieces of a great whale, the debris told a story only recognizable from afar by a practiced eye. She peered into the grainy photographs. There were piles of collector’s cards with notes on materials, theme, or era, cards from which the best buttons had already been harvested. There were small plastic bags of loose buttons. There was a heap of buttons that needed cleaning. There was a rubber-banded bundle of small tan or logoed envelopes of spare buttons for special articles of clothing. Gideon thought she recognized Florence’s tidy cursive on the top envelope, “brown wool suit, $195, 1962.” She took note of the seller’s location and stared for a long time at the photograph that included the sharpest image of the rubber-banded bundle.

By the time Gideon found the listing, its simple bulk had already attracted a dozen watchers. The auction was scheduled to run at night in a time zone a few hours later than hers, so Gideon planned to stay up late to monitor the bidding. She told her husband she had become convinced of the listing’s provenance. “I can’t tell if they’re left over from the nice ones sold to the antique dealer or if they came from the boxes that were put on the curb, but it doesn’t matter,” she said. “Dig deep,” he said. “You know what to do. Don’t let them get away.”

When the large box arrived, Gideon rummaged for the bundle of spare buttons and took it into the west wing. She hoped her grandmother had notated most of the paper packets, and she had. Gideon pried the little flaps open and shook the buttons out. Some were shell, or plastic imitating horn. She placed these aside. The rest were made from garment remnants stretched over tiny metal or wooden molds and then crimped closed in the back. The colors of the self-fabric buttons reminded her of paintings by Claude Monet.

Gideon picked up a tweed button in shades of pink and fuchsia with speckles of blue and yellow. She lifted it until it was framed by the light peach walls of the room. “Davidoff suit $350 1961,” her grandmother had written. The button looked like Rouen Cathedral at sunset. Another, “green tweed $195 1965,” with its dusky olives and bright red slubs, was a field of poppies among shaded rolling hills. Heavy silk crepe the color of hay, “shirt $95 1968.” Gideon tried to remember the last time she herself had spent close to a hundred dollars on an article of clothing.

Even as she compared her life to Florence’s, she knew the story she was trying to read in the buttons wasn’t about money, exactly. It wasn’t that her grandmother had mortgaged Gideon’s happiness by going shopping. Yet Gideon saw a strong and straight line between the tweedy and silky nubbins, each one an electric and outsized presence in her minimally furnished room, and her own life’s losses.

Gideon turned away from the array of spare button packets and leaned on the north-facing windowsill. Two catbirds gathered small sticks and wisps of dried grass and took turns flitting into the deepest part of the privet hedge. She watched the birds and the monarchs come and go for a while.

When my mother was a child, she lost her own mother to vanity and trinkets, Gideon thought. She only ever had enough love for one child. Whether the catalyst was an early illness or not, there is no one to tell me. My mother will never give me any of her money and I can no more change this than I can rip her from my heart.

The catbirds had tucked themselves into the hedge and the yard was finally still when the sun set behind the foothills to the west. Gideon padded down the hallway to her home office and started her computer. She composed an email to Ruth. “The relationship between you and me has never been a healthy one,” she wrote. “Any future contact between us will only cause me pain. Even if you have big news, do not write or call me. I’m done.” She sent the email.

There was a wispy flutter in the hallway outside her office and a soft impact as if finely-woven cloth had brushed against a wall. Gideon looked up from her computer and saw a shadow flicker in the hall. She turned away from the screen and rotated her chair toward the center of the room. She sat up straighter, waiting. It is possible to make your own luck, she thought.

The tiny brown bat flew into the room, made a wide circuit near the ceiling, and flew out again. It came back for another pass and flew directly at Gideon’s face. What kind of person is she, I want to know, I must know, the little bat thought. I want to see into her eyes, I want to smell her breath. There are two types of person. If she flinches, I’ll have to fly right at her face again. If she looks at me and makes the booming murmurs, I’ll be all set. I’ll come back and let her song flow over me every day, every day, every day.


Ellie May Mandell was an accountant most of her working life. She lives with her husband of thirty-plus years in a small town in New England. She is working on a series of stories about a cast of characters whose lives interweave over several decades. The stories revolve around themes of family and love, illness, moral injury, and redemption.