The Lights

The Lights by Dave Housley

Miller is sure she has been hiding the salt from him. He looks in the cabinet where she keeps the spices, rechecks the kitchen table and the magnetic shelf thing that sticks to the refrigerator where they used to put the hot sauces when he could still eat hot sauces. Nothing. He tries his readers but they just make everything even more fuzzy. He checks the lights but they are already on. He remembers when the world was lighter, brighter, technicolor, when it looked like a goddamn homecoming parade, like an apple—red, ripe, and ready for eating. Now the salt is being hidden from him in this dungeon of a kitchen while she is off having her drinks with her friends. He checks the lights but they are already on. He looks in the refrigerator but why would anybody put the salt in the refrigerator? Why does she do any of the things she does anymore?  

     He moves into the living room. It’s so dark in here. He finds the chair and sits. Basketball on the television. It is too loud, so loud, why did she turn the television up so loud. He remembers he was looking for something. The remote control. The lights. The salt. He had an egg salad sandwich sitting on the counter, some chips, a bottle of Coca-Cola. He grips the sides of the recliner and stands. His knee aches and the new shoes are too tight. Somehow his feet seem to be getting wider even as his body is retracting, bending crooked and shrinking into itself. He stretches, pushes out his belly. He remembers a bright green day, the feeling of his own body moving, the way he could compel it to run faster, shoot into the space between two defenders, the weight of the lacrosse ball secure in his stick.  

     He lumbers across the living room to the window. Gray outside. Rain soon. He has gotten out of the habit of checking the weather. He feels at his pockets but knows the car keys will not be there. The car keys are with Arlene. A bunch of grown women still going out for drinks every Wednesday evening. Afternoon. He is fairly sure it is Wednesday but since they stopped getting the newspaper he has found the days to be rather alike, the weeks to be slippery and confusing.  

      He is not sure if any of the husbands are still alive. Wendell, John, Pierce. All dead. He liked it when they got together with the Finns, the husband was some kind of musician and Miller enjoyed the stories of touring with a rock and roll band—the excesses and the groupies and the tantrums. A road not taken. After their move to Florida, it was once or twice a year and then it was Christmas cards and then it was nothing. He could move to the office and check them out on the computer, send an email. The computer is a conundrum of its own, a latch to a hidden corridor that he can never quite throw open.  

     But the computer is part of the problem anyway. All of them looking at their devices, staring at their hands constantly. A metaphor in there, a simile, a what was the other one?  

     He was looking for something. He checks the lights but they are already on. The basketball game is up so loud. The announcers look like children, the players move so fast on the screen. Larry Bird. Now there was a basketball player. He has lost track of the Boston Celtics for the first time in his adult life and knows it is a side effect of something that has gone wrong in the world. These teams are a red and white one versus a mostly blue and he has no idea who they might be. The Chicago Bulls, Houston, that new team in Canada. When the newspaper stopped arriving it was another sign. A symptom of the things that have gone wrong.  

     He moves to the window. Outside he can see cars go by on Carver Street. A few kids are playing frisbee in the little courtyard of the apartment building. He wonders if they are students at the university. Nearly everybody in this town is with the university in some capacity. They are not very good at the frisbee, throwing it long or wide and then giggling with embarrassment. The girl throws toward the street and nearly hits a pickup truck as it passes. She doubles over with laughter. Miller is not sure what she thinks is so funny about nearly causing a traffic accident. To live in this town is to constantly come upon people who are having a wacky time doing the things you have to do to simply get through the day.  

     The sky looks strange, darker than usual. He moves to the door to check the lights but they are already on. He was making a sandwich. Somewhere around here there is a sandwich. “Arlene,” he says. “Arlene!” She would be keeping the sandwich from him. First it was cutting down on the wine and then the potato chips and then he was taking a handful of pills every day and eating salad for dinner and there was no salt in the entire house. Now she is hiding an egg salad sandwich, of all things. A vegetarian dish.  

     There is a low rumble coming from somewhere outside. A truck or thunder or perhaps they are having fireworks at the stadium for some reason. It used to be that there had to be a special occasion for fireworks but now every single time they have a baseball game it seems to be a special occasion.  

     The people who were playing frisbee have gone. Is it getting darker outside or is everything just getting darker? He puts on his readers and that just makes everything gauzy and blurred. There should be some kind of glasses that would be the opposite of sunglasses, glasses for making everything brighter, how it used to be, for making everything normal. From the living room the announcers shout something about a double-double. Everything is silly now. Unsophisticated. He had a sandwich somewhere. He moves to the light switch but the lights are already on.  

     The phone rings from somewhere deep in the apartment. The bedroom. The study. The ringer is an old jazz riff that he likes. Arlene spent an entire afternoon reading the computer to figure out how to change it, playing with other sounds until she got it right. He feels in his pocket. The phone is still ringing. He had a sandwich somewhere. He wonders if it is Arlene or one of the children calling. The youngest grandchild likes to call him on the phone. They all have phones now. A ten year old with his own phone, like a small executive, a housewife kvetching about this or that, smoking a cigarette in her bathrobe. Miller remembers when he used to get the occasional call at the Skeller. He and the others from the department had a standing happy hour meeting every Wednesday for years.  

     The sounds from outside are getting louder now. The phone is still ringing. Something beeping a warning from somewhere in the apartment. He moves to the window and again it seems so dark out there. He can see lights flashing in the sky, heat lightning or fireworks, they can set them off whenever they like nowadays, any old schmo with a lighter and an ATM card. The youngest grandchild, the one who likes to call him on the phone, probably has a toybox full of fireworks he can set off any time he likes, indoor or out, baseball game or fourth of July or just because he feels like expressing himself. He squints, feels for his readers but they are not there. He pictures them on one of the tables, the saltshaker sitting next to them. His readers are in his pants pocket for some reason. Not a place he ever keeps them. He puts them on, but they just make everything gauzy and blurred.  

     The sounds are getting louder, the lightning or fireworks getting closer to the ground somehow. “Arlene!” he shouts. “Something’s happening outside.”  

     The television is the thing that is beeping. He sees something moving along the bottom, a warning or some such. “We are told this is real,” the announcer is saying. There is nobody playing basketball, just some men in suits in a studio somewhere. “Some kind of attack that appears to be alien in nature.” The television cuts to static. Outside it sounds like a war zone, explosions and sirens and crashing sounds getting closer, closer, too close. The phone is ringing. A Cannonball Adderley riff from that song “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” He joked that he wanted the song played at his funeral and he realizes suddenly that it was no joke, that if what they say is real there will be no funeral either. The truth is it would have been better, funeral-wise, to be one of the first to go. It was dinners and clubs and dancing and then retirements and then last dinners before the Barnards or the Campbells or the McAllisters moved to Florida and then it was Christmas cards and funeral announcements and then nothing. “Alien in nature” is a strange way to say it, a couched statement.  

     “Arlene!” he yells. But she is out of the apartment. Grown women having drinks like sorority girls.  

     Outside there is rubble and smoke and things flashing. It is brighter, too bright, cars burning on the street, smoke coming out of the apartment across the courtyard. “Alien in nature.” He sits down, feels for his phone but it has gone silent, wherever it is. The television babbles static.  

     Outside there is nothing but the crash of the lightning. Alien lightning. Some kind of weapon. He used to open his classes at the seminary with a thought experiment: “Scenario,” he would say, and then let that sit for a moment. They were all so young, so eager, maybe not the best thinkers he had ever taught, these future Lutheran pastors, but certainly the most responsive. “Aliens attack.”  

     Of course he never thought that it would actually happen, that he would be here for it, that Arlene would be off gallivanting all over the place while he was stuck in this apartment with no salt and no glasses, no computer no phone no television and something alien in nature happening outside.  

     A bang on the door. “Mr. Miller, are you okay?”  

     He remembers that week when he and Arlene were watching the neighbors’ apartment. What was their name? Another couple that disappeared to Florida or Arizona or some other place with sun and old people slowly disintegrating. Something about it had really gotten them going.  

    “Mr. Miller!” Another knock.  

   Outside a crash that feels like it is somewhere at the front of the building. The apartment is shaking. He remembers the neighbors had some kind of rum that he hadn’t ever thought to buy. He wonders if he still has any rum or bourbon or gin but the alcohol was the first thing that disappeared around the time when the doctor’s appointments started to take over the schedule, when he stopped going outside because of the problems with the stairs, the noise, everything always too bright or too dark.

     There is a crash and the front window shatters. He smells smoke. “Arlene!” he shouts. It is bright, too bright. He is not sure when he last owned a pair of sunglasses. He was making a sandwich. Outside the sounds of sirens, the cracking of the lightning. The neighbors had this drawer full of lingerie and some other things, vials of liquid and a neck massager. He should stand. He should walk outside. He should give them a thought experiment. He imagines himself standing in the courtyard, staring up at the sky through the fire and the smoke and whatever is sending that lightning into their buildings. He would put his arms up to the sky and…he wonders if this is happening where Arlene is as well. If they are drinking drinks with small umbrellas and fancy pineapple garnishes. The alcohol has been removed from this apartment. Perhaps the neighbors still have that rum. He feels for the phone in his pocket, his readers, he reaches for the lights but the lights are already on.

Dave Housley is the author of four novels and four story collections, most recently the novel The Other Ones. He is one of the founding editors and all-around do-stuff people at Barrelhouse, and the primary organizer of the Barrelhouse conference Conversations and Connections: Practical Advice on Writing. He is the Director of Web Strategy at Penn State Outreach and Online Education. He can be found online at