Chaos, illumined by flashes of lightning.
— Oscar Wilde
The Centennial Light had cast its soft glow in a California firehouse for nearly 110 years. While an amazing and wondrous thing to see, it inspired the ire of many who manufactured and sold light bulbs.
Complained Nathan Zelnick, Jr., co-owner of Zelnick Lighting Outlet, “We’d be out of business if bulbs lasted that long. Imagine if every product had an unlimited lifespan? This country’s economy would be up shit creek, and nobody would want that. Yet everyone wants a bulb like the Centennial. They don’t know what they’re wishing for.” Nathan saw red every time he had to deal with the question of why modern light bulbs had such limited longevity compared to the celebrated Centennial’s eternal glow. He speculated that his store’s two-block proximity to Fire Station 6 that housed the seemingly immortal four-watt, carbon filament lamp made his business the biggest target of consumer skepticism and dissatisfaction.
“If that bulb can last forever, why can’t GE make another one? After all, it made the darn thing,” was a frequent customer complaint.
“It’s a fluke,” responded Nathan defensively. “Just one of those weird things that happens and can’t be duplicated. That’s why they call it a miracle. Besides, the Shelby Electric Company made it…not GE.”
“Well, these bulbs you sell are built to blow out sooner than they should. It’s all part of that obso…something strategy of big business designed to keep our pockets empty and theirs full.”
“Hey, it keeps my store running and a roof over your head. You should be thankful for that!” snapped Nathan. “Besides, I don’t make them. I just sell them.”
For twenty-seven years, Nathan had run the store with his older brother, Sam. When his father died, despite being younger, Nathan had been put in charge of the business, due to Sam’s attention deficit disorder and hyperthyroidism that made it difficult for him to deal with customers. Conversation between the two old bachelors did not amount to much and usually ended with Nathan complaining about the Centennial light bulb—the singular bane of his existence. It was during one such lament that Sam proposed a solution.
“Let’s just sneak over to the station when they’re out on a call and shoot the bulb with your BB gun.”
“I’ve been tempted to do just that. I’m so sick of people telling me we’re cheating them because of that damn bulb,” responded Nathan, staring out of the window toward the firehouse.
Deciding to take action, he and his brother practiced shooting the BB gun in the building’s basement in anticipation of the assault. They settled on the following Sunday night, but when it was time to act, Nathan could not rouse Sam from bed. So he threw on his clothes and headed over to the firehouse alone, clutching the Daisy BB gun he’d been given as a kid.
As expected, the streets were deserted, the firehouse doors open and unattended. Nathan carefully approached the building, making certain nobody was about. At the entrance, he took aim at the Centennial bulb and squeezed the trigger. The fired pellet glanced off the wall a foot from the dangling incandescent. His next shot was on target, but rather than shattering the bulb, the BB shot caused a blinding flash and when the glow subsided the bulb was still intact.
Nathan was perplexed and wondered if there was some kind of shield around the light to protect it. After scouting the area again for anyone who might see him or hear the BB gun, he moved inside the firehouse to a point directly under the bulb. He then took careful aim and shot at it. Again, a brilliant blast of light issued forth from the bulb. Spooked by what had happened, he dashed out of the firehouse towards home.
What the hell? he wondered as he opened the entrance to the store on the way to his apartment. As soon as he was inside, he sensed something was wrong. Then he realized that the display lamps that were always on were dark. When he tried their switches, nothing happened. “A damn fuse,” muttered Nathan, who headed to the basement to check the circuit breaker. The switches were all in the right position, indicating power was still on. He returned to the display floor, figuring the plugs must have come loose, but to his surprise, they were snug in their outlets.
When Nathan climbed the stairs back to his apartment above the store, he found Sam watching television in their dark living room. “Do the lights work?” he inquired, and his brother said he didn’t know. “Well, try the lamp, for cripes sakes!” snapped Nathan, who then tried the switch on the lamp himself. “Nothing! How the hell can that be? The TV is on. It doesn’t make sense. Look, the electric wall clock is on, too.”
“What’s the matter?” asked his brother, his eyes still fixed on the television.
“I don’t know. Something weird is going on.” Nathan’s eyes then drifted to the window. “The street light is out,” he observed, walking to the window and peering out. “Hey, none of them are on. There are no lights coming from any place at all. Must be a blackout, but how can that be if the power is still on for the TV and clock?”
“Wonder if the Centennial Light is still on?” said Sam.
“Good thought. I’ll go check,” replied Nathan, who dashed back down the stairs and out of the door. In the darkness of the fire station a tiny glow emanated from the ceiling. “I’ll be damned,” muttered Nathan, who then heard the returning fire trucks and ran away. On his journey home, Nathan noticed that no lights were evident in any direction, not even from houses in the distant hills.
“Look,” said Sam when Nathan entered the apartment. “They’re reporting a blackout all over the state.” Nathan watched as a shadowy figure from a dim studio reported that all illuminating devices appeared to be affected: “Power exists for everything except lights. This is already causing significant problems throughout the state, especially for hospitals and other critical service agencies.” “Hey, was the bulb still on?” inquired Sam, chomping on a Frito.
“Yeah, it was,” answered Nathan, with a far-off look in his eyes. “Maybe I caused the blackout when I tried to shoot out the bulb. Something really weird happened. Every time I tried to kill it, there was an explosion of light. It almost blinded me.”
“Maybe it didn’t want to be shut off,” commented Sam. Nathan’s attention returned to the television reporter who was giving an update on the worsening situation: “According to authorities, the blackout is not limited to California. In fact, it has spread across the country. FEMA reports that lights are out in every state. Strangely, however, it seems that the famous Centennial Light in the Livermore-Pleasanton fire station remains on.”
“Maybe it’s from outer space, Nathan,” offered Sam.
“Shush!” responded Nathan.
“Here it is folks. A live picture of the Centennial Light from the station’s bulbcam.” The image of the solitary bulb gave Nathan the shivers. He felt as if it were a malevolent eye cast solely on him. What horrible event had he set in motion?
“There are now reports that both Canada and Mexico also are in the dark. This may well be a global phenomenon. Furthermore, it appears that any attempt to generate light fails. We have reports that flashlights and car headlights do not work and even candles will not ignite.”
“I bet we’re being invaded. It’s an alien beacon guiding them to our planet,” said Sam, pacing back and forth in front of the television.
“I’d better call the police and let them know what I did,” muttered Nathan.
“…Probably going to harvest us or make us their slaves,” continued Sam.
“For God sakes, shut up, Sam!” bellowed Nathan, as he dialed 911 on his cell phone.
After several busy signals, his call reached the emergency operator and he detailed his attempt to shoot out the ancient bulb, suggesting that his action was the likely cause of the blackout. The 911 operator asked for his name and address, and then hung up.
“So, are they coming to arrest you?” inquired Sam.
“I don’t know. I have the feeling they thought I was a crank,” responded Nathan.
“Maybe we should go to the station and try to knock out the bulb again. The fire trucks just went on a call. Bet they’re busy with the blackout,” observed Sam.
“Why would we do that? It’s probably what caused this mess in the first place!” snapped Nathan.
“What if your old Daisy wasn’t powerful enough to shoot out the bulb? We could try to hit it with something…maybe a rock or brick. Could be once it’s out, the aliens won’t be able to follow through with their plan.”
“What plan? This whole thing is crazy. I don’t know. Maybe you’re right. Something sure as hell is odd about that light,” admitted Nathan.
“Well, let’s do it,” said Sam, with the resolve of a military commando.
The brothers crept down the dark stairs and furtively walked along the equally dark street to the firehouse. As they stood before its open doors, they could see the Centennial Light as it glowed ominously.
“Here, try this,” said Sam, handing his brother a rock the size of a baseball. Nathan chucked it at the bulb, missing it by a couple of feet. “Sandy Koufax you’re not. Let me try,” said Sam, winding up to throw another fist-size rock. His attempt was on target but caused such a blast of light that they flinched and stepped back. When the burst of brightness subsided, the bulb still shone intact.
“Hey, what are you guys doing?” shouted someone behind them. “You’re not authorized to be in here.” A man in full firefighter garb approached them.
“That bulb is behind the blackout,” blurted Sam, pointing upward.
“What?” asked the fireman, now standing just inches from the distraught brothers.
“We’re certain that light has something to do with what’s going on, and I think I started the whole thing,” said Nathan, on the verge of tears.
“What do you mean?”
“A few hours ago, I tried to shoot out the bulb, and right after that everything went dark.”
“Why would you try to do that?” asked the fireman, removing his helmet. “It’s an icon…very historic.”
“Look, you can’t destroy it,” said Sam, chucking another rock at the Centennial Light. His aim was perfect and once again created a tremendous blast of light that caused the men to recoil.
“What the hell!” blurted the fireman, covering his eyes.
“You see. It’s not of this world,” said Sam, “It’s an alien mechanism placed here in advance of an invasion.”
“Jeez, it’s strange, but I don’t know about any alien invasion. That’s pretty out there, pal.”
“Well, it’s got some connection with what’s happening. I’m sure of that,” said Nathan.
“Maybe it does,” responded the firefighter, nervously rubbing his forehead.
A crowd began to gather outside of the firehouse having witnessed the blasts of light from the Centennial Light over the bulbcam. Several police cars soon appeared, followed by the FBI and other officials. The media were hot on their heels to the scene. By late afternoon, the world was tuned into the Livermore firehouse and people were growing convinced that the bulb was the source of the mayhem.
It was decided that the Centennial bulb had to be destroyed, and several ideas to do so were quickly suggested by the police and military. The first involved the use of high-powered rifles, but they failed to extinguish the light. Next, the area was cleared and heavy artillery brought in. Several rounds were fired, resulting in the destruction of most of the firehouse, but when the smoke cleared, the Centennial bulb continued to glow from the electrical cord that hung perilously from a crossbeam.
“We’ll have to bomb it,” said General Gillespie of the state’s Army National Guard. “That’s the only thing that will do it in, and it will have to be a substantial barrage to insure the job gets done. Of course, there will be collateral damage. Several blocks will be leveled, so let’s start evacuation procedures.”
“That will destroy our store!” exclaimed Nathan.
“Wait!” shouted Sam. “I have an idea. Let me try to unscrew it from the socket.”
“What a novel idea,” responded the general, sarcastically.
“Well, no one has tried that.”
“You want to be electrocuted?” growled the general.
“No, Sam,” said Nathan. “Let me try to unscrew it. I started this thing.”
“Well, go ahead if you’re crazy enough to try it,” conceded the general. “Get this guy a ladder, and I want everybody to get way back. Have the ambulance ready to remove his crispy remains.”
When the ladder was in place, Nathan climbed it slowly. I’ll never make it, he thought, as he neared the Centennial bulb.
Sam held his breath as he stood with the crowd several hundred feet away.
I’m dead at any moment, thought Nathan, as he reached the bulb. His hand trembled as he began to twist it from its socket. To his great relief, there was no blinding burst of light. After two turns, it came out, prompting a huge sigh from the crowd.
At the moment, the Centennial went dark; the lights in what remained of the decimated firehouse came on, as did the streetlights. These were greeted with loud cheers from the assembled crowd.
“Whaddya know,” said General Gillespie, shaking his head in amazement. “All we had to do was unscrew the goddamn thing to prevent this chaos.”
As a safety precaution, several other long-running light bulbs, including the Eternal Light in Fort Worth, Texas, the Gasnick Bulb in New York City, and the Mangum Light in the Oklahoma town bearing its name, were unscrewed and destroyed. Once again, the world was fully illuminated, but concern about the cause of the blackout lingered. Theories ranging from an alien invasion to a warning message from God filled the news for weeks after the blackout. But as with all stories, eventually interest faded and life returned to normal.
For Nathan, the quality of his existence vastly improved, not only because he was proclaimed a hero for re-illuminating the world, but also because his customers now held the belief that built-in obsolescence was a highly desirable element in the products he sold.
It was not until a year had passed that Nathan realized none of the bulbs in his store had burned out.
Michael C. Keith is the author of two short story collections, And Through the Trembling Air and Hoag’s Object.