Empire of Illumination

Light enters the window as if it were there to be contained in an oddly shaped box, open on the side facing forward. It seems to have weight and body, and it fits exactly, and therefore does not fall forward and out. The light arrives from a window opening on the sea and sky as if they had manufactured it. A wall blocks the view further in, but there must be another window in the next room, narrower and higher up, for it too has a box of light, smaller and farther reaching, and it folds over a desk and chair as if it wished to write. No one is waiting inside the boxes, but the presence of the couple can be felt, and you might easily imagine the ordinary door at the end of the second room, perhaps even a kitchen and a bath attached like children to the boxes of light.

 

Ralph and Alice are arguing about how old the refrigerator is. “Half as old as I am,” says Ralph. “It’s as old as that belly of yours and not half as big,” replies Alice with deeply hidden affection.

Norton storms in without knocking and says, “What did the elephant say to the naked man?” He pauses for a quizzical twist of the head. “Give up? Don’t got the answer at the tip of that eloquent tongue?”

Ralph glares.

Norton stretches, as if he’s going to hand the answer to Ralph on a platter. Pulls the platter back. Does it again.

Alice’s fist is still perched on her hip in self-righteous aplomb.

Does it again.

Ralph bellows out, “Will you just answer the question?”

Norton sidesteps like the air from the bellows might knock him over, looks at the wall and answers the wall before turning back to Ralph and Alice, “Not bad, but can you eat peanuts with it?”

Pause.

“Get it?”

Pause.

“Eat peanuts with it?”

Ralph inflates, slowly leaks. “Yeah, we get it. Now get out. We’re having a discussion.”

Norton, oblivious, smiles knowingly. “Yeah, Trixie and I have those kinds of discussions too. Last time I stayed at Joe’s grandmother’s place. That tall guy at the lodge who’s always bumping his head. You know, sometimes it ain’t so bad bein’ short. Just the other day I walked under the doorway at Trixie’s mother’s house, and I said to myself, ‘Self, that there’s a short doorway indeed, and if I was any taller I’d hit my head,’ and Trixie’s mother, she…”

“Enough,” blasts Ralph across the bow of Norton’s floundering ship and points to the door.

Norton leans back as if a great wind has challenged his right to be on the sea. He looks as if he might be about to take a fighter’s stance, then leans back and flaps his arms like a chicken interrupted while feeding and exits, slamming the door, spilling out an ambiguous look of hurt commiseration as he scrabbles into the hall.

 

This time the man and the woman are looking out the window together, and there is nothing out there. They share this, and it comforts them. They gaze at it for a long time. Perhaps we’ve been hesitant to enter their space, but their space has already entered us. It has been inside us all along, with other spaces we have paid more attention to. This one is silent. It waits for us. There is something we need in it, but we must spend a lot of time there to discover it. It’s hard to find what you’re looking for in an empty room. The silence becomes a thing in the room. We have begun.

 

Ralph makes a sandwich. One bite and his face squirms. He goes looking for something to alter the flavor. He finds a squeeze bottle of mustard in the refrigerator, and it farts loudly as he drowns the sandwich in mustard. He wanders the room, daydreaming and eating his sandwich, which leaks on his shirt. He spoons up the fallen mustard with a dirty spoon from the sink, daubs the spot with tap water and wanders the room, daydreaming again.

Ralph spies a water pistol left by the neighbor boy and mocks a tough guy stance into the mirror, gun in one hand, mustard sandwich in the other, leaking on his hand, laughs and absentmindedly puts the pistol in the refrigerator and reaches under the faucet to wash his hand. The pipes sound like a car backfiring and he startles, still relishing the last bite of the mustard sandwich.

Norton flusters in the door without knocking. He’s clearly very nervous. He can’t hold still. His fingers are tapping out an awkward rhumba on his arm, and he keeps readjusting his hat. “H-hey Ralphie Boy. What if a guy saw something, and he didn’t know what he saw for sure, but it might be something important, and it might get him in a lotta trouble if he really saw it, and he told anybody he saw it?”

“Well, Norton, old buddy, old pal, on behalf of the Gotham City Bus Company’s latest policy revisions, created by one union member now in your very presence and quite possibly as a result in the running for the next union president, I can state categorically that every driver is the captain of his vessel, and that makes him responsible for what occurs on his watch. Just as a man at home is king of his castle, so does that man venture forth into the world beyond with a sense of what belongs to him and what the world has to offer.”

“Yeah, but what if shots were fired?”

“Norton, a man approaches life with a sense of adventure, and life approaches a man with opportunities, and sometimes the opportunities don’t look like opportunities, and you have to look real hard to see through them to the other side. And that’s where all the glory lies, my friend.”

“Yeah, but what if the guys who fired the shots got away and know somebody saw them?”

“Norton, Norton, Norton, there’s only one thing that makes life worth all the heartache, and that’s making it your own. You have to take charge, grab the bull by the horns, stand up to the man and demand your own place in the scheme of things. You have to look the man with the money in the eye and let him know it won’t buy you. You have to take the respect first and the money will follow. You have to set aside your fears and step into the maw of hell to come back out a man.”

“So you’ll hide me from the gangsters I saw rob the bank?”

Ralph turns aside so Norton can’t see him go bug-eyed.

 

Yellow on brown. The windows are closed. The edges of the boxes of discolored light seem to bleed. The couple is not here. They seem to have melted into their boxes. Or they have been here all along, and we just haven’t learned to recognize them in their many forms. They have left the windows closed and do not wish to escape, but neither do they think of themselves as happy, if they were even capable of that. The resignation is so complete it almost seems comfortable. They remain separated by a wall they both love.

It’s what they know. It’s reliable.

 

Ralph is pacing the floor, trying to look thoughtful, but failing miserably to hide his anxiety. Norton is drumming his fingers on the table, also very nervous but making no effort to hide it. He drifts off occasionally and jerks back awake. Ralph begins hiccupping.

“You got a bubble machine in your stomach or something?” asks Norton.

“No, I don’t, Mr. Wiseguy. It’s from all the thinking I’m doing trying to save your boney little ass.”

“You’re a pal, Ralphie Boy. Who else would do so much thinking to try and save a guy like me?”

“You’re right about that one, but listen. I think I got it. We’ll stay here in the apartment and call in sick, and we won’t go out anywhere. That way those guys will never see you, and they can’t try to kill you if they don’t know where you are.”

“Good idea, old buddy, but what do we do about food, and what are we gonna tell the girls? Alice and Trixie will get suspicious.”

“Well, for their own safety, we’re gonna have to keep a secret, and we’ll get Johnny Canolli upstairs to go get some groceries for us. We’ll sit tight and wait this thing out.”

“Ralph, I’m impressed. You’ve showed true courage and fortitude in helping out your old buddy in his time of need, and I want to thank you most sincerely.”

Ralph, beaming, slows his pacing and pushes out his suspenders in a gesture of expansive pride and says, “Well, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”

Immediately, there’s a knock on the door. Ralph swaggers over to it and opens it without asking who it is or checking the peephole. It’s the gangsters, two of them, a short guy with a bent nose and greasy hair and a tall hefty henchman with muscles everywhere and a fat head.

“Which one a youse is Ed Norton?” says the greaser.

“He is,” they say, pointing at each other and speaking at exactly the same time. The gangsters aren’t amused.

“We wanna know ’cause we got an offer for him.”

Norton’s eyelids go up. “What kinda offer?”

“The kind you can’t refuse.” The gangsters find this amusing. Ralph turns away and goes bug-eyed. Norton remains oblivious, pats his stomach and asks Ralph for a sandwich, offering lunch to the gangsters like they’re about to make a satisfying business deal.

Ralph is pacing again, still bug-eyed. The gangsters look at each other, surprised, laugh and sit down, waiting for lunch, watching Ralph pace.

“Well, what’s to eat? I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” The greaser’s talking loudly. The fat head finds him hilarious.

“Well we ain’t got much in the refrigerator right now…” starts Ralph, opening the refrigerator door, and he freezes like the moment in a cartoon before the villain realizes he’s been hit in the head with a frying pan. Then he shakes his head like it’s too big for him, puts the water pistol on the plate and covers it with a loaf of bread and a hunk of summer sausage. He’s behind the gangsters at the sink fixing the sandwiches when the pipes start backfiring again, and the gangsters jump to attention, guns drawn. They realize it’s the pipes, laugh like hyenas and, finally impatient, turn the guns on Norton. Norton drips down his chair.

Ralph jams the water pistol in fat head’s side and says, I’ll take those,” like it’s a hat check at a swank restaurant. The greaser looks to the side and sees the water pistol. “It’s an automatic.”

Ralph collects the guns and just then the police break in, rousting everybody until the sergeant looks the two gangsters up and down and pastes a fat smile on his mug. “We’ve been looking for these two. Thanks for the help, guys.” Winks. “You sure know your stuff.”

Ralph beams, swaggers, points the water pistol at Norton, who trips trying to get out of the way, but gets a wilting squirt in the face just the same.

 

It’s one of those doors that opens on the ocean. We know there must be something between the world and the door, but we cannot see it, and we imagine only one step from the door into the ocean. The staircase descends to the door and thus appears to rise back away from it, as the horizon does, in the other direction, there where it rests above the life we have led before coming here, a life we would have a hard time describing since we have lived so much of it in our minds.

If we are, as it appears, beneath the horizon, shouldn’t we be swimming? Oh, but we are. There it is. You can see it now, the staircase behind the door to who we were.

Too bad we’re so innocent. If we were suspicious, we might notice the door has no handle.

Swim harder.

 

Ralph’s standing in front of the mirror with a three-tailed raccoon cap perched on his head. He’s gesturing expansively to himself. “I therefore, with great pride and humility, accept the honor of becoming your next Imperial Grand High Exalted Mystic Ruler of the International Order of Friendly Raccoons and declare this to be, in honor of the recent capture of two very dangerous criminals, Hero Sandwich Day.”

Ralph’s taking a deep breath and peering closer into the mirror, winding up for the big finish to his speech, when Norton stumbles in unannounced and slams him in the ass with the door. Norton’s wearing suspenders, a dirty T-shirt and a three-tailed raccoon cap. He looks confused. He pulls his hands against each other like he can’t decide if they’re exercising or trying to hide.

Pause.

Norton starts to say something. Stops. Starts to say something. Stops.

“Can I have one a them sandwiches now?”

 

The light does not fall on us. It is part of what we are, and it allows us to fall into ourselves. If we look carefully at the result, we find it difficult to believe it’s us.

It must be something light did to us. Perhaps we conclude that the light that reveals you is not intended for you.

 

Ralph comes home with a large paper bag. No one’s in the apartment, and he pulls out a gorilla mask and puts it on. It’s too big for him and has googly eyes that sway back and forth when he moves. Just then the door opens and Norton swaggers in and announces, “I just so happen to have two, count ’em, two, ringside seat tickets to tonight’s championship match between the great Maxie Rosenblum and Kingfish Labrinski at eight o’clock in Madison Square Garden, and it shall be known that Trixie does not, I repeat does not, wish to attend.”

No response from the gorilla.

“If a certain friend of mine were to indicate his everlasting appreciation of such a gesture, I might indeed, out of the kindness of my heart, be persuaded to offer the second of said two, count ’em, two, tickets to the aforementioned buddy, old pal a mine.”

No response from the gorilla.

“Hey Ralphie Boy, you want to go to the fights or not?”

“How did you know it was me?”

“You got your bus uniform on with your name over the pocket, it’s your apartment and the door was unlocked, and you just so happen to be built just like a certain corpulent friend of mine. That enough?”

No response from the gorilla.

“Now if you grew hair all over the rest of your body, growled and ate bananas, maybe I’d be fooled, but you growl a lot anyway and for all I know, you’re one hairy beast under that uniform.”

No response from the gorilla.

Alice enters with a bag full of groceries and heads directly for the refrigerator, as if Norton were nothing more than a table lamp from which she currently needed no light. She’s untying her scarf from her head and putting away groceries as she says, “Now don’t forget that tonight we promised to take my mother to the ballet, and we have to pick up the dry-cleaning on the way, and we need to come right home afterwards because tomorrow we volunteered to help serve a holiday dinner to the paraplegics at the Veterans’s Hospital.”

Norton takes a step back, brushing the empty grocery sack onto to the floor.

“Oh, hi, Norton. Is Trixie upstairs?”

“She’s at her mother’s again.”

“Must be nice to have such a considerate daughter.”

Norton scowls.

Alice addresses the gorilla. “Don’t you think you’d better change? You don’t want my mother to think she was right about you.”

 

Oh yes, the woman’s body is attractive. And so is the texture on the wall and the contrast of colors on a bird’s wing passing on the other side of the door. There is, indeed, an eroticism to it, but it does not belong only to her. Which is why she enjoys this moment so completely. It does not belong to her, and it compensates for that which does.

 

The next day Alice is gone. Another visit to her mother’s, Ralph assumes.

Ralph nurses a hangover, and tries to remember if Alice told him about the trip, or if he did something embarrassing and made her mad.

He can’t remember.

 

Sometimes we create things by creating the space for them. First you have to allow for something. It’s an invitation which you must give to yourself. Each space has room for something. Each space is a kind of invention with a personality in it that might come alive.

This is what we think of when the light beckons. This is what a box of light can do to you.

 

Ralph’s at the table with books and papers spread all over it. He’s writing figures and pausing to lick the tip of the pencil when his face blooms, and he gets that look cartoon characters have when you see a light bulb over their heads. He goes to the door, and as soon as he opens it, Norton pads in, wearing his battered hat and a nightdress, his arms out in front of him in a caricature of sleepwalking. “Hey Norton, I just had the greatest idea ever. I know how we can get rich and really enjoy life. I know I’ve had some great ideas, but this one tops ’em all. I’m going to become a corporation.”

Norton snuffles. Continues blindly around the room and exits.

Sounds of heavy footsteps on the stairs. A thud.

Ralph follows with a puzzled look on his face.

Heavier footsteps and then sounds of a large body tumbling down stairs.

 

In the front of a large room, where the lights reflect in the window and seem to be trying to come together as the two rows descend and move away, the tables suggest a café in a bohemian district, but you have only to listen to the scratching of buttons and zippers or the thump of tennis shoes to recognize a laundromat, deserted as it is, so late on a Thursday night with only a tiny young lady in a flowered hat drinking coffee and crying. She holds a single glove in front of her as if to prove something to the coffee cup. In another twenty minutes or so, the laundry will be dried out. Will she?

Outside it is raining, and the woman notices when the dryer stops and the silence she expects does not arrive, still hidden behind the wind-driven drops slapping the bathing window. The sky cries while the washer outside tries to fill, and she carries her dirty laundry into its agitation, talking loudly to herself, to be heard over the storm’s wet complaints.

She travels with purpose. One has to on a night like this. She does not know where she’s going, but she knows how to get there. The way a sleepwalker does.

Now the rain has stopped, and so has her crying. If people were passing at this moment, they might hear her say, “I am an invention of myself.” She says it only once, forcefully, with great conviction, and disappears down a stairway no one can remember being there yesterday.

 

Ralph’s at the table again with his leg propped up in a cast. He’s serious. Intent. He presses the pencil too hard and snaps it.

Norton enters, happy and befuddled. “Hey, hey, hey, whatta ya got goin’ there, my Ralphie Boy?”

“Well, besides the obvious damage to my leg, which you managed to cause by falling asleep on the stairs last night, when I thought you were hurt and tried to help you, I have a splitting headache, despite which, I am still retaining a truly brilliant idea, on this beautiful morning during which the rest of our lives shall truly begin.”

“What idea might that be, Ralphie Boy?”

Ralph, irritated, impatient, replies, “Norton, I told you last night. I’m going to become a corporation.

“Ain’t you big enough already?”

“Okay, we’ll see who’s laughing then, Bucko, when I’m riding high on the hog, and you’re still in the sewer.”

“You wouldn’t forget your old pal, now, would ya, Ralphie Boy?”

“Well I might be persuaded to remember certain friends who contributed to the cause of my incorporation efforts, old pal of mine.”

Norton cracks his knuckles.

“Stop that. You know I can’t stand that sound.”

Norton, nervous, absentmindedly does it again. Ralph turns angrily to get up, and hits his broken leg against the table and faints.

 

If the light in the room also speaks from the shade, it’s because the light must enter from what it has already known. Light is a sensation and dark is not the absence of light but another sensation, prior to light.

There’s a knowledge that arrives at the periphery. You turn away and there it is.

And then it happens again.

 

No, the two hills outside the bedroom window do not remind the man of the woman’s breasts any more than do the two bedposts at the foot of his bed, but they hold his attention as if he knows something about them that we do not. His eyes are held by them only tentatively, but his thoughts, well, we know thoughts can live outside the body, and his have been sleeping.

 

The lamp on the table in the Best Western shines like an alien eye from behind the tattered birch-bark lampshade. The stuffed chair sits alone in a self-satisfied stupor. The man won’t risk being swallowed by it and appears tensed, ready to leap from the perfectly made bed, where he sits too carefully, waiting.

Outside the window, the fat rounded lines of a brown 1957 DeSoto fit right in with the squat bread-loaf hills tinged with the gray dust of a windy morning on the edge of a desert. Overstuffed, leather-worn bags stand guard at the reasonably priced door. The woman, with plunging neckline in a long black evening dress, seems to be waiting for someone to carry them. Her hair is blonde, short and severe. She’s handsome and serious. Have they had a fight?

The early light seems angular and welcoming but will soon heat up again. They believe they have a destination, but they don’t know what it is. They hadn’t really believed they’d stay together.

 

Years and more years pass, and this thin bobbed woman is naked, hunched over on the bed in another tiny hotel room. She is reading a book as if it were personal, a letter, and it seems to be a disappointment. Her clothes sleep in disarray on the complacent overstuffed chair. Did the man leave before she awakened? Did he die before her?

Outside the window, a fire escape slowly defines itself. She will not finish the book, but she will find another room and another chair to hold her clothing and soon enough another naked body to read her and grow satisfied with the disappointment.

 

The man reads the paper with all his attention, dragging it down into the words and away from her as she idly plunks the piano with a single finger.

They are together.

They are apart.

Will they ever leave their confinement?

He is dressed neatly in a white shirt, tie and vest. Perhaps a suit jacket is hugging the thin shoulders of a chair-back just beyond our view.

Her long green dress is comfortable, and her hair is neatly tied at her neck. The definition of her features could be lost in the lampshade if she leans back any further.

It’s a summer evening and the people on the street with us glance in as they pass but do not remember the scene as we do, replacing it with the next and the next. We have been thinking about the scene a long time when we realize the table is bare and the woman wants him to speak, though she doesn’t expect him to address the real subject.

Are they deciding to go out for dinner?

Is he looking for a movie time in the shelter of the newspaper?

The day is warm but it’s quickly cooling, its physical discomfort melting slowly. Windows are closing as a chill breeze arrives from the ocean.

The door remains open. Undecided.

 

She remains on the small square bed, naked in heels, facing the wall. Is she resting or feeling rejected? He is lost in thought, neatly clothed but for a wandering shirttail. Perhaps they have just completed an assignation, a fantasy they’ve acted out. Or has she failed to draw him out of some deeper sadness she cannot penetrate, and he’s preparing to leave while she sulks?

The window light lays a bright rectangle on the floor, and his brown shoe enters it at the toe. He appears to be contemplating this deeply. Is he considering the vast complexity of the world, or suffering a small unsatisfactory piece of it? Perhaps he is puzzled by something profound. The source of the light and the life it carries? The shape that holds it in place on the floor and allows his wandering toe to enter? The endless depths of the human imagination?

What might she be thinking as he rises from the bed? Does life in all its complexities remain a kind of soap opera no matter how thoughtfully we try to experience it?

 

He sprawls naked, face down in an oversized pillow, painfully white. He seems fragile, stiff and too thin. He could not be sleeping. Is he frustrated? With the woman? Is he in pain, a headache perhaps. Has he been rejected by the woman?

Her boney features lie barely hidden beneath a thin summer dress as she sits on the edge of the bed. She’s wearing short heels, and they click as she crosses the large slate panels of the floor, a sound clean and clear. The sheets behind her seem darker, more deeply creased than they should be, for light is streaming through the tall window. The window frame juts out from the wall, as if it were an afterthought. Despite the cell-like qualities of the sparsely furnished room, the light’s accusations seem tentative. It’s not that the couple will be proved innocent, but only that the accusations tomorrow will be different ones.

 

Ralph’s ensconced on the davenport with his broken leg raised, glass of orange juice in hand, his face pocked with angry red eruptions. Alice is back at the stove, the homey smell of eggs and bacon drifting.

Fumbling and banging noises at the door. Alice opens the door and Norton sleepwalks in, wearing a nightdress, battered hat and a shovel hanging from one of his outstretched arms. He is thin and haggard, as if he has been sleepwalking for years. The shovel bangs against a chair as he circles the room and stops in front of Ralph.

Ralph squirms painfully out from under a blanket to see Norton clearly and says, “Don’t touch me. I’m measled.”

No response from Norton, shovel in hand.

Alice brings Ralph a plate of bacon and eggs. “Now Norton, I don’t think he’s that bad. You can take the shovel back home. You want some eggs and bacon before you go?”

Norton sleepwalks out the still-open door.

Sounds of a small body tumbling down the stairs.

Ralph and Alice look at each other suspiciously, shrug their shoulders and go back to what little they were doing.

The light pouring through the window of the box they live in doesn’t seem to be helping them with anything they’re doing, but it creates moments of surprising beauty as they move in and out of its influence. Each of them in turn seems to notice some of these moments while missing others. Ralph eats breakfast while Alice begins doing the dishes. Even while Alice finishes the dishes and sighs and Ralph returns to the davenport and falls asleep, the moments continue.

Rich Ives lives on Camano Island in Puget Sound. He has received grants and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Artist Trust, Seattle Arts Commission and the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines for his work in poetry, fiction, editing, publishing, translation and photography. His writing has appeared in Verse, North American Review, Dublin Quarterly, The Massachusetts Review, Northwest Review, Quarterly West, The Iowa Review, Poetry Northwest, Virginia Quarterly Review, FictionDaily and many more. He is the 2009 winner of the Francis Locke Memorial Poetry Award from Bitter Oleander. In 2013 he has received nominations for The Pushcart Prize (2), Best of the Net and storySouth Million Writers Award. He is the 2012 winner of the Creative Nonfiction Prize from Thin Air. Both Tunneling to the Moon, which is being serialized with a new story each day on the Silenced Press website for 2014, and Light from a Small Brown Bird (poetry, Bitter Oleander Press) are scheduled for paperback release in 2015.

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One Response to Empire of Illumination

  1. Elan Mudrow says:

    Nice writing! I liked it a lot!
    check out:
    tricksterchase.com

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