Sleepers

by

Cate Kennedy

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Ray, a 35-year-old single man, is stuck in traffic while driving to his part-time warehouse job in a small Australian town. The delays are caused by a large construction project run by outsourced contractors to dig up railroad tracks, but Ray notes that nobody local was hired. He encounters a road flagger directing traffic and remembers being mocked for doing the same job by his ex-girlfriend Sharon, who later broke up with him and forced him to move out of their shared apartment.

After work, Ray goes to the pub, where locals are discussing piles of discarded railroad sleepers generated by the construction. Among others, Vince expresses anger at the roped-off sleepers, which the residents believe should be shared with the community for landscaping or firewood instead of being sold for further profit. In another memory of Sharon, Ray refused to landscape the garden at their apartment, much to her frustration.

Stealing sleepers is a common activity in the town over the next two weeks. One of Ray’s warehouse coworkers boasts of taking a truckload home at night to finish his pool, and a trio of residents become infamous for impersonating construction workers to do the same in broad daylight. Steve holds a barbecue that Ray attends, where the backyard is also lined with freshly stolen sleepers. Ray describes a tightness in his chest while realizing he is the only single man at the gathering. He retreats to eat and drink alone while thinking about seeing a second car in Sharon’s driveway, indicating that she has moved on to another partner. Ray decides not to strike up conversation with any of the women at the barbecue, revealing that he lives in a prefabricated steel shed on a friend’s property, where he has been since moving out of Sharon’s apartment.

At the barbeque, Steve’s teenage son, Sean, calls out for Ray to look through his telescope, but Ray is unable to remember Sean’s name or see anything clearly in the lens. Blaming his poor health, Ray thinks that it’s probably a good thing that he doesn’t have children of his own. He attempts to drive home but has drunkenly fallen asleep in his car, dreaming of driving past Sharon’s home again only to see her with a new partner through the window.

Ray drives to the construction site instead of his home, planning to steal some sleepers. At first, he justifies this as an attempt to win back Sharon, but after arriving at the site, he changes his mind and decides to take the sleepers for himself. As Ray dons gloves and starts loading sleepers into the back of his truck, he feels healthy and energetic. He begins to think of landscaping a garden and stoking a fire in the winter with the sleepers. However, a police car pulls up unnoticed by him and shines its headlights at him, catching him in the act. Ray feels his chest grow tight once more as he turns around, knowing that the police are going to arrest him to make an example of him in the hopes of deterring other residents from stealing the sleepers. He waits for the police to arrive and resigns himself to being a scapegoat for the town.