There’s this huge cardboard box filled with lightbulbs in the basement at my parents’ house, gathering dust amidst all the other miscellaneous piles of crap. Shelves crammed with broken appliances and dirty stuffed animals. Beach chairs and suitcases, even though we never went anywhere together. My father’s cop equipment, his riot gear and helmet. Plus all the groceries – big bags of cat food and jars of tomato sauce. Hundreds of cartons of cigarettes, bottles of booze and aspirin. Dad has his interests.
“Hey, garbage picker!” my mother yells from the top of the stairs in the kitchen. She flings a bag of 8-track tapes aimed at his head. “Get this shit out of here before I blow my stack.”
Mom sent me home one day with a Ziploc bag filled with lightbulbs, all different wattages. Each carefully wrapped in paper towels so they wouldn’t break. The first one I tried was burnt out, but the rest were okay. It took a while to use them all.
I have one lightbulb left. I carry it with me from room to room when it gets dark, twisting and untwisting the bulb from each socket as I go. I need light so I can see what I’m doing. Pouring wine in the kitchen, rinsing soapy clothes in the bathtub, chopping up pills and snorting them. I can get very busy folding tiny pieces of gum wrappers and magazine scraps to make a chain that will never become a rug. I also look for lightbulbs I know I don’t have.
I devote an old sock to this procedure. I wear it like a glove as I approach the hot glass, so I don’t burn my fingers. But I still get burnt. The more I drink, I forget.
I know I’m gonna need a new bulb soon. This one is starting to flicker hesitantly when I pull the string to turn it on. The thought crossed my mind last night that perhaps I should go upstairs and ask my neighbor if she could lend me one.. I even practiced my question out loud, just to see if I could say it without sounding too fucked up.
“Hey, Mindy. do you think I could borrow a lightbulb?”
I counted how many words I’d have to say to get my point across. Ten simple words. Eleven, if lightbulb is two words. But I’m pretty sure it’s one. I might have been able to do it, too, if Mindy got home from work earlier. But she stays at the hospital until 9:30, and by then, I am always half in the bag. I couldn’t ask.
I sit crouched on the living room rug when my lightbulb gasps its last weak breaths. I’m sifting through a pot filled with fish tank gravel that I’ve poured out onto a metal baking sheet. I am separating the granules by color. It’s a big, unnecessary job, but I am focused on the task at hand. I don’t even have fish anymore. Charlie poured a bottle of PineSol into the water and killed them all. But maybe I could get more. Someday.
When my wine cup is empty, I unfold my legs to stand. I stretch the right one first. And then, the left. Both are stiff. They ache from being locked in position for so long. I tell myself I am good at concentrating, and that’s why they hurt. I locate my sock and reach above my head to unscrew the bulb. I hear the quiet sizzle through the delicate glass membrane. That final “pop” startles me, and I jerk my hand away.
I stand there in the darkness, staring at what was the ceiling a minute ago. But now, who knows?
“Shit. Shit. Shit.”
Reaching for the wall in the foyer, I turn into the small kitchen and move toward the refrigerator. I pull the door handle open. And once again, there is light. And wine. I pour my drink to the top and lean against the counter. What to do… It’s after midnight – too late to start ringing doorbells for help.
I stare into the shelf where the thick beam of light originates. I can see the appliance bulb doing its job along the back wall of the fridge. Maybe I could just switch out the lightbulbs. What a brilliant idea! They look to be about the same size. And then, I can get back to my work. It’s worth a try.
Waving my arm into the air above where I think the outlet dangles, I locate the dead bulb and with two hands, carefully begin its removal. That’s when I hear the rusty, crunching sound. Like a confused animal, I position my face to receive the strange noise. It stops when I pause the unscrewing. And begins again when I continue with the bulb’s extraction. As I persist, the crunching is accompanied by a small explosion – tiny shards of glass plink off my forehead and cheeks. Some rest just inside my open mouth.
“What the fuck?”
My hand remains cupped and extended above my head, but I am no longer holding the precious bulb. That space is empty. I’m afraid to reach for the socket, for fear I will die by electric shock. Something terrible has happened, but I cannot explain it to myself. I step on fragments of unseen glass in my bare feet.
I creep along carefully into the kitchen and spit slivers of lightbulb into the sink. My guess is the bulb has somehow shattered. I rinse my mouth with some wine and knock back a few more pills from a little batch I have in my pajama pocket. I thought I was done with the speed until tomorrow, but this crisis has officially established the new length of my night.
I venture into the black to retrieve my gravel project. I carry the baking sheet back through the rooms and take a seat on the floor in front of the open refrigerator. I resume my sifting and sorting until the morning sunlight arrives, piercing its way through the dirty basement window. Finally, I can assess the situation.
It seems the lightbulb has indeed broken off inside its electrical base. I can see the delicate guts and wires protruding from the end of the suspended cord. I have no idea how to fix this. I will ask at my job when I get there. Plus, they’ll probably have lightbulbs in the storage closet or something.
Climbing into the bathtub to take a shower, I briefly consider that I might still be drunk from the night before. But as I scrub my hair and face, I decide I am more tired than wasted. I am in good enough shape. I will go to work, secure a lightbulb and bring it home. I feel optimistic.
I can’t believe there are no standard sized lightbulbs in this whole fucking place. It’s all recessed Iighting – big, round canisters that aren’t worth a shit to me. I’ve checked every office and bathroom. Not one goddamn desk lamp anywhere. And don’t even suggest I go buy a lightbulb. That’s not an option. I have no extra money. Plus, I still owe two girls here twenty dollars each, so I can’t tap anyone for a loan.
I’m just gonna have to try and find a lightbulb elsewhere. I’ll figure something out.
In the meanwhile, I explain my current quandary to several co-workers. I ask if they know how to remove the damaged lightbulb pieces without electrocuting myself. Evidently, it’s as easy as cutting a potato in half and jamming the open end into the broken works. But c’mon, if I can’t even secure a lightbulb, how the fuck am I supposed to get a potato? Really.
At lunchtime, I meet up with my dealer and collect a little dope on credit. Enough for tonight and tomorrow. The day after that, I get paid and will have extra money again. I can buy all the lightbulbs I need. Fuck, I don’t even want any lightbulbs, but I probably should get a couple, just to have.
It is freezing shit with light flurries at 5:30 when I leave my job. I will wait to buy wine from the liquor store near my house, so I don’t have that far to carry the big bottle. Even though I just bought from there last night, and I don’t want the guy who works behind the counter to think I have a problem.
Once in Queens, I purchase my alcohol with sixteen cents left over. The streets are slippery as I walk past several restaurants, the movie theater and a Rent-A-Center that never seems to have any customers. I continue half way down the avenue and double back, sweeping the display window for information to support an idea that’s just coming to me.
Appliances in the front area – TVs, stereos, washer/dryer combos. Sectional sofas, daybeds and coffee tables in the showroom. Dimly lit, but lit nonetheless by a forlorn collection of lamps that no one seems to care about. Except me. I care.
Here on the Island of Misfit Light Fixtures, there is much to choose from. A gigantic giraffe with a sateen shade protruding between its antlers, three monkey faces stacked like a totem pole, a mermaid with mean-spirited nipples. Sprawling, tri-headed contraptions that loom menacingly over recliners with cup holders.
There are two bundled figures scraping and salting the sidewalk outside the store.
“Hey, are you open?”
“Go in.” One of them gestures toward the door.
A buzzer rings as I step inside. An elderly woman sits with her legs crossed on a bar stool near some rugs suspended from the ceiling. She shouts into the telephone in an ancient language I do not recognize. I don’t know. Egyptian, maybe. It sounds like she is fighting with whoever is on the other end of the line. She does not acknowledge my presence, and I am relieved.
I move quietly into the back area and begin turning lamps on and off, testing each model. Most are duds. But the one I find resting inside a dusty porcelain bowl is a keeper. I unscrew the bulb from its chamber and slide it gingerly into my coat pocket. As I turn to make my exit, I notice some change on the ledge of a wall unit – three quarters and a dime – just sitting there, minding its own business. I take that, too.
They have lots of merchandise in this place. Not everything is ugly. I suppose I might be interested. It would be nice to have new things. Perhaps a bed for Kirin.
I found a twin mattress and box spring around the corner from my house. They’re in decent shape, no gross stains or anything. I bought Lion King sheets and a comforter, but it’s been weeks since he’s come to stay. Charlie is jealous and unpredictable. I am afraid to bring my boy around.
The old lady is making coffee for the shovelers. Perhaps they are her sons. She yells at them from the doorway with maternal familiarity.
“Do I need a credit card to buy something here?” I ask.
“No buy. Just rent.”
“Why? Don’t you have a credit card?”
“You got a bank account?”
“You’re a grown girl. You get a bank account,” she says. “Many good items here.”
Fuck this bitch. I thank her politely and leave.
The snow is really coming down now. It’s easier to walk in the middle of the street. I follow the tire tracks of passing cars and trucks. This blanket of white will seal me inside the basement for hours. I’ve got wine and my drugs, a lightbulb and now, enough money to buy a potato.
I have everything I need.