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Apr/May 2018 Fiction

Lamps Light the World

by Vivian Zenari

Found: in ABQ – studio art jewelry by Jessica deGruyter

Found: in ABQ – studio art jewelry by Jessica deGruyter


When Delia arrives at work, Maybell salutes her smartly from the reception desk as usual, but this morning Maybell also tips her head in the direction of Noreen, the junior administrative assistant. Across the room, Noreen sits hunched forward at her desk, as though looking down at something lying flat in front of her. She might also be asleep. Noreen's long, ash-blonde hair, straw-straight and parted down the middle in an irregular line, obscures her narrow face. Noreen's presence is a novelty: normally the girl drifts in 15 minutes late.

Delia skirts the edge of the open room of desks and passes the door of her boss's office. She hears Bob talking on the phone to his wife and moves on. She pauses at the empty desk where, for a month now, she has been pretending that the soldier from Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway works. Delia greets him. Hello, Septimus.

After arriving at her own desk, she thumps her purse down, and the metal booms in complicity. "Good morning, Noreen!"

Noreen raises her head. At first her face is blank, but eventually something catches at her ticking mind. Her eyes blink in a violent spasm, her thin cheeks flush red, and she blurts, "G'night, Delia." She winces, twice, as though ashamed of her own voice, and, in retrospect, her words, tilts her head down and continues doing whatever she was doing before Delia interrupted.

Maybe Noreen came to work early to make a good impression. She will be babysitting Delia's son Stephen this evening while Delia goes on a date. It's pointless to ask why she is early, even in a teasing way. She tends to speak only when spoken to, perhaps because she knows her social inexperience leads her to say something interesting at least once a day. Things like "G'night, Delia" in the morning, or, "You don't want to swallow a fly," or, "Uncle Bob doesn't like keyboards." Noreen is not allowed to answer the phone in the office. When not saying interesting things, she twitches and shudders in response to any sound, including a telephone ring.

Delia sinks into her heavy, musty office chair and stares at the computer screen. She could prepare for her performance appraisal tomorrow. It's official federal performance appraisal time, and Bob is doing all three office staff tomorrow. He's already told her that her appraisal is a formality. Otherwise, she has some EPA bulletins to read. Some days she has nothing else to do besides read bulletins, so she has learned to manufacture distractions. The assessment of Noreen's babysitting potential constituted a useful mental project for a while, but now she must find something else. Too much idleness leads her down debris-strewn roads of memory: her wasted years at college, her unplanned pregnancy, her subsequent reeducation in a two-year wildlife management program. To prevent the accumulation of more debris, she moved from a northern Canadian metropolis to this Midwestern American town, bringing her toddler Stephen, a slumping Ikea futon, a lamp, and a few boxes of books. In the rented house outside Taggart near the dunes, her father's tombstone, her mother's remarriage, and her wastrel past are far away.

Delia reads a bulletin.

At nine o'clock, Bob sticks his head out of his office, as he normally does at that time of the morning, and greets his staff with a hearty "Howdy, all! Another blessed day in store!" before withdrawing to the private mysteries of his stewardship.

Delia has found it useful to conceive of the Fish and Wildlife office in Taggart as the sheriff's office in The Andy Griffith Show. The office interior looks roughly like Andy's office. An American flag stands in one corner, maps of Minnesota and the United States cover the wall, old-fashioned ink blotters decorate the tops of the desks, and wooden chairs by the front vestibule offer stiff greetings to rare supplicants. Maybell's name sounds like Mayberry, the town's name on the show. Maybell even reminds Delia of the character Don Knotts played, complete with chicken neck, bulging eyes, and country accent. Delia used to watch The Andy Griffith Show on a retro channel during her slack-ass TV-watching years after dropping out of university. She had no experience with rural America before Taggart. During her first year, she tried to ease the shock by pretending she lived in the English countryside, a Jane Austen world of manor houses and rolling green fields, or Virginia Woolfish pebbly cottages and a seashore of grey waves and jagged cliffs. In reality, Taggart is a 20-street, landlocked town near a national park of hilly grassland, scraggly woods, and old dunes.

When the office clock clicks to ten o'clock, Delia and Maybell stand up for their break. Bob calls out his open door and says he can't join them this morning. He rarely joins them.

Maybell and Delia stroll outside and sit at the picnic table in the patch of grass beyond the front door. Bums on the splintering tabletop and feet on the bench, they stare out at the empty Main Street and contemplate the pure-blue sky. They drink tea, not coffee—people in Taggart have little interest in coffee. Delia has taken up the tea habit, but not the Taggart cigarette habit. Maybell takes slow drags on her Winston and performs her daily community exegesis. This morning she discourses on the life of the young local who careens by in a Ford truck ("His daddy got him the truck"), the likely origins of the new clothing line that Kate's Fashions across the street has been offering ("Neiman Marcus sell-offs outta Minneapolis"), and, just as break time expires, the objectives of the two strange men who drive by in a Toyota SUV ("Looking for meth dealers"). When Maybell and Delia come back inside, Noreen is sitting at her desk and sucking noiselessly out of an apple juice box. Noreen never takes breaks away from her desk.

Delia has decided that Noreen is a shy, well-meaning kid crushed by an overbearing mother. The girl was good with the children at the Christmas party last December. She was in charge of the kids' craft table, but her mother—and putative party date—took practical command. When Noreen placed the big box of crayons on one end of the table, Mrs. Pilip moved the box to the middle. At the conclusion of the party, Mrs. Pilip wrote each child's full name on every piece of artwork and distributed the art to their respective parents, all while Noreen hunkered alone and immobile at the craft table.

Her interest in children appears to be normal mothering instincts and nothing else. Maybell agrees, though with a caveat: "She understands kids because of all that Nickelodeon she watches in her ma and pa's basement."

Perhaps Maybell has become jaded by Noreen, whom she has known all of Noreen's life. A high-school graduate in a region of 2,000 people and a relative of the manager, Noreen was fated to work at the Fish and Wildlife office. She might benefit from one of the field jobs, such as delivering firewood to campsites in the unpeopled solitude of nature, but she has allergies. That she works entirely indoors for the Fish and Wildlife office is an irony Noreen seems to appreciate. One day she accidentally spilled apple juice on a stack of newly printed pamphlets on her desk, and she squealed to herself, "What kind of Fish and Wildlife is this?"

The day runs its course. Delia switches from reading bulletins to reading emails. Lunch and afternoon coffee breaks align pretty much with the morning's, with more gossip from Maybell but with colder tea under a hotter sun.

At about 4:00, Noreen has her daily silent, shivering meltdown over something she is typing falteringly for Bob. Bob, who has developed an instinct about Noreen's moods ("He's like one of those dogs that helps epileptic kids," Maybell says), approaches his niece's desk and whispers to her for a minute, and her tense body relaxes.

These incidents used to fascinate Delia, but now a fit like today's barely registers. In any event, she has received an interesting e-mail from the state's natural resource department about a suspected badger den near the county dump. She decides to keep this report in her mind as her "carrot." Before she leaves work every afternoon, Delia picks a subject she can focus on to set the stage for the next workday. At home, whenever she catches herself generating evil thoughts, she shifts her attention to the carrot. The den should be an effective carrot—Delia likes badgers.

Just before quitting time at 4:30, Delia reminds Noreen about the time span of the babysitting—from just before 6:00 to about 8:00. Noreen nods, smiles quietly, says she will be there. She is half-standing to flee; she always slips out one minute before 4:30.

Delia tries to create a positive work-home transition by chatting with either Maybell or Bob on the way out. Today it's Bob with whom she finds herself walking shoulder-to-shoulder to the front door. She tells Bob that Noreen is babysitting for her.

Bob looks puzzled. "Is that right?" He continues with more bonhomie. "Well, it's about time that girl did something like that. It's good for her."

Driving from the office, Delia wonders if she is involving Stephen in a social experiment. By the time she reaches the daycare in the strip mall behind her office, she has dismissed her broodings. In the daycare coatroom, Stephen is brimming with news. "Amanda is afraid of spiders!" he announces.

He doesn't have time to tell more stories in the car ride home, since Taggart is small and the drive is short. Their rental house sits alone near the dunes at the end of town, part of a housing subdivision begun over hopes for local oil and gas development but abandoned after the 2008 recession. The dunes aren't even real. They are grey dunes. They don't shift around with the wind, but have been slowed to a standstill by plant growth. Some of the plant growth is natural, but some is vegetation deliberately introduced by locals tired of windblown sand and longing for soil. Practically speaking, living by an active dune eventually would lead her house and the whole town to being buried in sand. The sands of the dunes are not actually grey: they are pale brown and covered in green stubble. Delia likes to walk alone among the dunes in the dark. The only exterior light in the neighborhood emanates from the stars and the moon, the lamps in Delia's house, and the weak glow of the electrified town behind the dunes. The land developers had not gotten around to erecting streetlamps before giving up on their potential boom town. In the indigo skies of morning and early evening, the dunes become deep purple and blotched, as though bruised.

Once Delia and Stephen arrive home, they begin their domestic ritual. Delia watches TV with Stephen for an hour and then cooks supper, tonight not for her and Stephen but for Noreen and Stephen. Delia makes baked macaroni and cheese with homemade cheese sauce. While the food cooks in the oven, Delia sits next to Stephen in front of the TV to watch cartoons.

Right as she takes the casserole dish out of the oven, the doorbell rings. Noreen wears black leggings and a long green shirt under a short pink hoodie. As is the custom in Taggart, she has left her bike on the front steps without locking it.

Noreen's abashed expression disappears once she sees Stephen peering at her behind Delia's back. "Hey, there, buddy."

Stephen smiles back. Maybe he is simply pleased to see someone in the house besides his mother. Noreen does have a sweet voice, though.

"Supper's ready," Delia says. "Stephen, why don't you take Noreen to the kitchen and help her?"

He trots into the kitchen where the macaroni and cheese waits on the stove. Noreen moves forward, jerks to a halt, almost makes eye contact with Delia.

"I'll be back in two hours," Delia says. "Remember that Stephen's bedtime is 8:00."

"Yes, ma'am," Noreen says softly.

Delia meets her date, a lawyer, at a pizza restaurant in the next town. His son goes to the same daycare as Stephen does. Her desire for a vegetarian pizza and an alcoholic drink captures Mr. Lawyer's attention. Early in the meal, he makes clear that, though he is divorced and is as open-minded as the next fellow, he is traditional, believes in Christian values, is a meat and potatoes type. Delia and the lawyer are cordial to each other, but that is all.

She gets home a half-hour earlier than she expected, but she doesn't go inside right away. She walks on the dunes in a spot she knows no one can see from her house. She sloughs over the sandy soil in her sandals, and her feet stir up a perfume like clover. She doesn't blame Mr. Lawyer for his forthrightness. Why waste time on people and things you know aren't going to make you happy? She's dicked around enough in her life to know how much time a person can waste for no good reason. Might as well put everything out in the open.

At 8:00 she goes into her house. She finds Noreen sitting on the futon with the TV murmuring and glowing bluely with a half-familiar sitcom.

"Everything go okay?" Delia asks.

"Yes." Noreen smiles demurely. "Stephen went to bed easy." She doesn't ask how Delia's date went. That kind of social nicety is beyond Noreen. Then again, Delia's demeanour may reveal more than what words could.

Delia checks on Stephen. The ball in her stomach dissolves when she sees that he is sleeping peacefully. As soon as she closes the door to his room, she feels an urge to drink beer. She marches into the kitchen and takes out two cans before she realizes what she's done. It's a muscle memory, a habit from her life back home, when she had people over and she would automatically bring out four or five cans of beer at a time.

Back in the living room, Noreen has not changed expression or position.

Delia holds out one can of beer.

Noreen says, "I don't really drink alcohol."

"How about a cranberry juice with ice, vodka and Sprite?"

Noreen says, "Okay."

Delia is surprised both at her own insistence and at Noreen's acquiescence. In the kitchen, she tries not to analyze the situation as she fixes the drink. She carries out the tall juice glass and sets it tinkling on the coffee table.

"Don't think I drink all day by myself," she says. "I have alcohol around in case I have guests."

Noreen reaches out a bony arm and takes the glass. She sips at the drink.

Delia plants herself down beside Noreen and asks what she and Stephen did tonight.

In as few words as necessary, Noreen explains: drawing, Lego, TV, bath, bedtime story, and bedtime—all activities as recommended or instructed by Delia. When she finishes speaking, Noreen stares out the picture window at the dunes.

"What kinds of things do you do at home, Noreen?"

"I watch TV."

"What kind of TV shows do you watch?"

Noreen blushes. "Oh, you know, the reality shows, mostly."

"Which ones?"

"Oh, you know, the modelling ones and the dancing ones."

"Are you interested in fashion?"

"Sure."

"Do you like dancing?"

"I took ballet when I was little, but the dance teacher moved away."

"Do a lot of people move away from here?"

Noreen has another swallow of pink. "No, not really." Her glass is half empty now.

"Have you done any travelling?"

Noreen looks thoughtful for a moment. "We went to Minneapolis a couple times. We went to the Mall of the Americas."

"Did you like it?"

"I got my grad dress there."

"Really? What did the dress look like?"

"It looked just like it did in the online catalogue."

Delia doesn't quite know how to follow up. She drains her beer and offers Noreen a refill. Noreen looks down at her glass and shakes her head no.

They stare out the picture window. The final fall of night has deepened the dunes' outlines, making it impossible to differentiate the sky from the earth.

Delia asks, "Would you like to visit someplace else one day?"

"Sure." Noreen takes a long drink from her glass.

"That's a smart thing to do," Delia says after a moment. "People need new experiences."

"Yes."

"You should explore. Live life. Find a job in the city."

Noreen looks down, not at her feet in a shy way, but with purpose, towards the box of crayons on the floor next to the futon. "Is that what you did?"

Delia has made a wrong turn. She's not used to beer anymore, maybe. Delia wants to maneuver out of this line of discussion. "But not, like, too much, mind you. You can't get too carried away, obviously."

Noreen eases herself up off the futon. "I have to go." The glass is empty now.

Delia has gone too far, or not far enough. She asks, "Can I drive you home?"

"That's all right. I ride my bike at night all the time."

Delia pays her, and Noreen goes out the front door. From the picture window Delia watches her ride away until distance and darkness make the girl and bicycle invisible. The transformation takes mere seconds.

She carries the empty glass and can into the kitchen. She puts them in the sink and rests the heels of her palms on the counter. She leans on them like that for a while. She spots a blinking light on the phone. Call display reveals her mother's winter number. Her mother is far away, not far away north, but far away south, in Phoenix, with her husband, at the end of their six-month stint there. She probably wants to know how the date went. Delia doesn't need to hear her mother's exact words—she's heard them before. She especially doesn't need to hear the smothered anticipation in her mother's voice. Delia has heard that many times, too.

She goes to Stephen's room and peeks in. Satisfied with the slow peace of his breathing, she enters her own room, lies on her bed, and recalls in a stream of data all she knows about badgers. She falls asleep in her clothes.

 

At work the next morning, Noreen says "G'morning" properly, but other than that, she manifests no extra sociability. Delia won't say anything special to Noreen—she's thanked and paid the girl already. The morning passes. Noreen disappears into Bob's office, as she sometimes does, and as the morning continues, the clattering of a keyboard and his calm voice are signals that Bob is reciting a long memo for Noreen to type. Delia spends some time looking at fonts in Microsoft Word.

At lunch, Delia runs over to the bank to transfer money from chequing to savings. When she returns, Maybell is nowhere to be seen. Soon Bob's door opens. Maybell ambles out and wriggles her fingers in a little wave. She drops into her chair and slaps the top of her desk heartily. "Well, that's another one for the year. A 25-cent raise and everything!"

Delia smiles. "Is that a lot?"

"Oh, yeah." Maybell winks. "Bob wants you for your evaluation at five past."

Delia's performance appraisal lasts 15 minutes. Bob shows her a three-page form with all the boxes x'd in the nice columns. The form's comment section contains a short paragraph about her professionalism and skill with computer applications. She and Bob chat about the suspected badger den. He tells a story about a tourist ten years ago who'd sworn he'd seen a Tasmanian devil running around in the park. Casually, Bob adds that he is giving Delia a dollar an hour raise. "I need to keep steady people around."

When Delia leaves his office, Maybell gives the signal for the afternoon break—two swift head tosses. At the same time, Bob calls Noreen into his office.

Delia and Maybell sit on the picnic table and drink their cold tea. Neither Maybell nor Delia expects Noreen to be fired this year. For several months they have discussed and dismissed this possibility at the picnic table, but today their conjectures have more frisson. When they go back inside, Bob's door is still closed. Delia and Maybell resume their places at their desks. Maybell chortles over something, likely one the joke emails she often gets from friends. Delia catches up on correspondence from the local wildlife fanciers' club, her responsibility as the district's outreach officer. While she reads, she pretends that a pale Septimus comes to her for consolation over his nonexistent raise. It'll be fine, Septimus. She even makes him laugh.

Bob's door slams open. At the concussion, Septimus fades away. Noreen walks out of the uncle's office, her limbs rigid and head erect, holding a piece of paper in front of her in one hand. It's a performance appraisal form.

With her free hand, Noreen reaches into her desk and removes something. A flame appears in front of her. She touches the flame to the form.

"Unsatisfactory," Noreen says in a hollow voice. She dangles the burning form over the garbage can. "Unsatisfactory." She drops the form into the can. A whoosh, and smoke rises up. She kicks over the garbage can in the direction of Septimus Smith's desk. A big pile of burning paper spills out. The office lacks a recycling bin, and Noreen throws out a lot of paper.

Bob appears in the threshold of his open office door. His mouth is shaped into an oval. He grabs Noreen by the shoulder and drags her through the main office and out the front door.

Maybell picks up the phone and shouts instructions to the county fire department. Delia hunts around the office perimeter for a fire extinguisher. She remembers seeing one somewhere, but she's forgotten where. In the meantime, flames flare up from Septimus's desk.

Maybell hangs up. "I called my nephew. The volunteer fire department is coming pronto."

"Is there a fire extinguisher?"

Maybell shrugs. "Who knows?"

They exit the front door together. Outside, Bob and Noreen stand on the sidewalk by Bob's parked SUV. He is talking to her downcast face. Maybell and Delia head towards the picnic table. Maybell smokes a cigarette, while Delia sits and waits for exploding window glass, a caved-in roof, a blast of fire thrusting open all the doors.

A fire truck rolls up next to Bob's SUV, and three firefighters scurry out of the front cab. Maybell walks over to one of them, presumably her nephew, and speaks to him, arms flailing, as other two men unroll hoses from the fire truck.

From the sidewalk, Bob shouts, "Okay, ladies, you all go home." He opens his vehicle's door and guides Noreen inside.

The fire-fighting nephew brandishes a run-of-the-mill fire extinguisher and enters the front door. In less than a minute the nephew leaves the building and strides over to the fire truck. The two other firefighters reverse the unrolling of hoses.

Maybell approaches Delia. "Fire's out. Where's Bob?"

"Bob told us to go home. He's in his SUV with Noreen."

Bob's SUV lurches from the sidewalk and drives away.

"I'll be damned." Maybell grins. "I've heard of snow days, but this here is a fire day."

Maybell says she'll call Delia at home later with any gossip she can scare up by then.

At the daycare, Delia tells the receptionist that work ended early. When she and Stephen are outside the daycare building and beside the car, he asks, "What happened, Mommy? Did you get fired?"

She hasn't been fired from any job within his living memory. "No. Why do you think that?"

"That's what happened to Cody when his dad came early to pick him up and his daddy said he got fired."

Likely Cody's dad was a late-stage victim of the recession. "Oh, yeah?" is all she says before she nudges Stephen into the car. Once she is driving, however, she allows herself to judge. To have a four-year-old understand the impact of unemployment: what was going on in the daycare for that to happen? She hasn't been that happy with the daycare. The kid who bit two little girls, or the rumor of the two-headed baby in the crib, and the mysterious "forking" incident. She hasn't figured out what Stephen meant by that last one; the staff say they have no idea what he's talking about.

She has half a mind to spin the car around, go back, and withdraw Stephen from the daycare. For a dangerous second she fantasizes about doing it. Luckily, though, she has been practicing her self-control. She reins herself in. She doesn't even turn the car around. That's how steady she has become. Daycare spaces in Taggart are hard to come by. She can't burn that bridge.

After supper—sloppy Joes—Maybell telephones to say her nephew considers the damage inside the office to be minimal. "We'll need a new carpet, one new garbage can, and, if we're fussy, one new desk." Bob called Maybell and asked her to pass along the message that tomorrow would be a normal work day. "A blessed work day, as he called it."

After Maybell hangs up, Delia has a beer and watches a Blue's Clues DVD with Stephen. The sun sets behind the dunes, she switches on the lamp, and Stephen falls asleep with his warm head on her shoulder. She feels all right again.

 

Bob's office door is shut when Delia arrives to work the next morning. The garbage can is gone. A large black smudge on the thin carpet and the smell of smoke bear witness to yesterday's disaster. Someone has swept clear the top of Septimus Smith's blackened desk. Her own desk is sprinkled with ash as though a lazy smoker has used it.

Maybell is sitting in Noreen's spot. "Don't I pass for a Noreen or what?" Maybell freezes into a grimace, bares her teeth, and makes the veins in her neck stick out. "How's this?" Her voice is constricted into the groan of a freaked-out Noreen.

Delia walks up to the desk and taps on the top. Maybell curls her hands into claws and reaches out menacingly.

Bob's office door opens with a squeak. Maybell leaps out of Noreen's chair just as Bob emerges, followed by a flame-eyed Noreen.

Noreen stops in front of Delia and Maybell. Her gaze flicks to and fro before resting on the burn circle on the floor.

"I'm sorry about yesterday." Her voice carries farther than it ever has before. As soon as the last syllable fades, she whirls around and jets into Bob's office.

Bob stands by the open door of his office with a big smile. He usually smiles with unmotivated and inappropriate jollity, but an uncharacteristic bitterness has set into his mouth. "Noreen is real sorry," he says. "I know that won't happen again." He reenters the office and shuts the door behind him and his niece.

"Well," Maybell murmurs. "We have things to talk about at break, don't we?" The computer on her desk beeps for her attention. "I got like a dozen gossipy emails to answer now."

At the picnic table during morning break, Maybell says her nephew called Bob and gave him shit for not having a fire extinguisher. Bob remembered then that there was one. "It's behind that filing cabinet in Bob's office." She confesses that, even with the fire, she has nothing new to add to Noreen's psychological profile ("a whack-job"), though she hypothesizes freely on why Noreen keeps a lighter in her desk (for freebasing apple juice or clearing out Bob's farts). Delia contributes the idea that Noreen is a secret smoker, like Delia's father had been for a long time. She decides not to say anything about her conversation with Noreen that night after babysitting. Too much of her was in that interaction to share with Maybell.

When they come back into the office, Noreen is occupying her desk as usual. Her head is down, and her fingers fumble with the keyboard in the pretext of doing some touch typing.

An update to the badger report awaits Delia in her inbox. The sighting may have been a false alarm. As a precaution, she researches badger sub-species in the United States. While she cruises the Internet, she wonders if she will ask Noreen to babysit Stephen anymore. She knows that she likely won't need another babysitter anytime soon. Mr. Lawyer had been the last viable prospect in the area. Besides, even if she needed a babysitter, she couldn't both ask Noreen again and also envision herself as a proper mother.

The day goes on as the other days tend to, except that Noreen does not have a flip-out in the afternoon. That part of Noreen, it seems, has been spent. Sometime after 4:00, Noreen evaporates from sight without Delia noticing. Bob stays in his office, his door closed, and does not wish anyone goodbye.

 

At home, the late afternoon and early evening progresses predictably. Delia and Stephen eat in placid silence. As she washes the supper dishes, he draws at the kitchen table. Lately he has been drawing skyscrapers. He has never seen a skyscraper except in books and TV. Taggart doesn't have any buildings with elevators, and Stephen left Edmonton when he was too young to remember any building taller than a water tower. His narrow, tottering skyscrapers bloom in fuchsia, scarlet and teal out of the lime-green meadow he has scribbled at the bottom of the page.

After bath time, Delia sits next to Stephen on the futon in the living room. They cuddle in the near dark, Stephen in his race-car flannel pyjamas, Delia in her sweatpants and t-shirt. Outside the window, the edges of the dunes are leaden curves against black.

She stands and turns on the floor lamp next to the futon. Stephen squints at the illumination, and he smiles.

"Lamps light the world!" he exclaims.

Virginia Woolf said art was like a series of gig lamps along a road. Or something like that. Delia hasn't read Virginia Woolf since university, can't remember as much as she used to, even though she took an entire course on Woolf. She suspects she named her son after Virginia Woolf née Stephen. Stephen has no father, no particular person she can point to, anyway, with any certainty.

She says, "Lamps are one of the things that light the world."

Stephen yawns loudly. She takes him by the hand and leads him to his room, where she reads him a bedtime story about talking trucks. In no time, she is shutting the bedroom door on the image of his sweet drowsy face on his pillow.

She extinguishes the lamp by the futon and goes to her bedroom. She sits cross-legged on her bed and does nothing. Normally, she eases herself to sleep by reading books on her e-reader. Sometimes she listens to talk radio shows about the paranormal and conspiracy: flying saucers, pythons invading the Florida swamps, mysterious trains parked for weeks at the edges of towns going nowhere but threatening everything. Tonight, though, she ponders the non-existent badger by the dump. She imagines its heft, its black muzzle, its grey and white fur, sees its ghost.

In the middle of the night, she awakens. She fell asleep, evidently. She also has dreamed of something. She remembers a horse-drawn carriage. She rises, and in the dark she makes her way to the laundry room. She flicks on the light, and there, squeezed between the dryer and the door, is her little bookcase. On the shelf she finds Woolf's Common Reader.

The page she wants does not exactly fly open to her touch, but neither does the binding struggle against her fingers. A passage is underlined, with a question mark and exclamation point, in her own hand, in the margins. What did she mean by those symbols?

"Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged," the underlined portion reads. "Life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end."

She takes the book with her to the living room. In the absence of light, she must move carefully to avoid stumbles or collisions. She sits in the dark, the book closed in her lap. Beyond the window lie the grey dunes, now invisible to her. In their place, she imagines the English countryside, covered in short grass, windblown, a grey-shingle cottage in the distance, a manor house with a car from the 1940s parked outside. Gaslit lamps puncture a sky bright grey with clouds. Next she sees the dunes covered with Canadian snow, glowing under city lights from invisible high-rises. She closes and opens her eyes, and the dunes return to sand. She is living in a proper desert. Streams of sand wash off the tops of the dunes and pile up in front of the old ones into new dunes.

She smooths her face out as Noreen had done when the flame spluttered alive in her hands. The dunes slow down, collapse on themselves, stop.

 

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