When Light Bulbs Turn Off

Betsy used to polish all the light bulbs in her small apartment to keep things well lit.  A day could not pass without at least the flicker of a dust rag on the highest of bulbs.  Until today, three years after her marriage, when she sat in a kitchen chair staring at the linoleum floor.  Overhead, the dusty light bulbs dimmed the artificial light falling on her.  After three hours, she got up to take a walk out into the bright sun.  Although the high sun shone directly overhead heating the still air, she took a light coat because later in the fall evening the moving air would turn chilly.  Of course, she thought, I could have sat in that chair too long and not moved much which can give you the chills, too.

Betsy always believed in lights.  She liked things bright and shiny around her.  She did not like secrets or a lack of commitment from people she depended on.  Betsy wanted to be open with everybody.  Except nobody took her seriously, or so she thought while staring at the paved road she would walk before she started walking.  She thought how everybody had secrets living in the dark corners of their lives.  Even my husband couldn’t be relied on for commitment or openness.  He always looked elsewhere when I talked to him.  I hated that.  It’s like he was standing in shadows with his secrets as a security blanket.  There I was waiting under my brightly polished light bulbs.

Back in the one bedroom apartment and beside her only lounge chair, Betsy left both the picture of her husband and the newspaper obituary of his death lying on the cold floor face down near a cardboard box of his things.  Before stepping outside, she looked back and made sure she turned off all the dirty apartment lights.  She worried that the hazy bulbs needed shining and she did not want anyone to notice the dim lights did not shine as bright as they should.

It took her four hours to walk eleven miles.  Even if she owned a used car, she probably would not have taken it.  Maybe she could have taken a city cab or a local bus, but she did not.  She was not sure either would go her way.  Instead, she placed one foot in front of the other and walked the eleven miles.  While her body grew warmer, the still air grew cooler.

When she arrived, she walked up to a soap stone wall that established a square perimeter around granite grave stones.  A sparse forest of old growth, hardwood trees encroached upon the tranquil scene in three directions leaving the front end open to the narrow road and any visitors who might remember the deceased names.

Betsy’s body refused to go inside the bounded cemetery, so she moved around to the left side to get a better view of her husband’s head stone.  Twenty feet away on this cemetery side, she found the ’79 Chevy Impala with the deflated tires melted into the forest floor.  Tree limbs drooped over remnants of the exposed engine and the car’s rusted, yellow body.

It would get dark soon, so Betsy tightened her light coat around her small body and slipped through the broken back window of the abandoned car.  Efficiently, she buried herself in dead leaves.  The cold night air came and she hummed old folks songs about ‘hang down your head Tom Dooley’ and ‘Jimmy cracked corn and I don’t care’ until the morning sun reheated the stagnate air.

In the morning and throughout the day she stood peering just over the edge of the stone wall.  Only once did she leave to buy a peanut butter cup and apple juice at a quick mart a half mile away.  When she got back, Betsy stood against the cold stone wall looking at her husband’s granite head stone overlooking his freshly turned, clay soil.  Her legs would not walk her through the gate because of the difficulty touching the brown earth near where his body laid.  Betsy imagined the oak, ash, white birch, and pine sitting along the wall’s edge and slipping their thick roots under the solid wall and eating his remains.  These trees knew of her plight and they taunted her like an ugly disease.  Standing beside the stone wall, Betsy listened to a distant train horn while staring at jagged limbs hanging over her head.

Late that afternoon the still air grew colder despite the bright sun.  An elderly visitor to the solemn graves saw Betsy peering just over the wall’s edge.  An hour later the local police found her inside the abandoned Impala.  No one understood why her husband died bringing her to this place in her life.  Betsy knew.

Betsy remembered.  She wondered, where are the great heroes?  She wondered this while sitting in the back seat and watching, through the cracked front window of the car she lived in, blue uniformed men approach.  Betsy closed her eyes denying the unrelenting reality that approached her.  She took a deep breath and retreated inside her recollections of childhood memories where her life began to end.

Betsy did not remember her father dying after being hit by a new green, ’52 Plymouth sedan.  Her mother told the dramatic story, but she never said what he was driving.  At four years old, Mother and Betsy went to live on Grandfather’s dairy farm.  Of the things she remembered on the hilly farm, Betsy liked the sweet smell of rain just before it happened.

At adolescence, Betsy could not stop remembering the thunder storms that blackened the western sky.  She would run excitedly into the clover field and stand among the small blue flowers as jagged daggers of light streaked the stormy sky.  She held her arms and hands open and spread her legs making like a human X.  She let the lightening light up the tiny scars on the back of her legs and arms from Grandfather’s willow switch.

“The rain is coming,” she shouted at ghosts hanging from the dark clouds.  “I want to be a ghost and free.”  The pain of this desire to escape mortality swept away any fear and danger of the violent storm.  She imagined her father standing above the storm clouds riding a stallion and coming to carry her away.  Betsy wanted the fresh rain to pick her up and carry her above the grim loneliness of the sweeping farm.  She dreamed about going to where other children played freely.  Instead of going anywhere, the hard rain soaked her clothes and weighed her down.  Her body became heavy.

Puberty confused her brain.  She went without a training bra until her chest heaved and bobbed uncomfortably against her blouse.  She wore tight men’s jeans to prevent the widening flare out of her hips.  “Forget it,” she said to her mirror one day.  “My body is going every direction I don’t want it to.”  She felt then a glob of blood ooze between her legs, but Grandfather would not allow make up.  She felt like a champagne cork popped open never to fit into the narrow neck bottle.

Betsy cut off her long red hair to her chin.  She made it look choppy and without form.  Grandfather did not dare do anything to her because Betsy had set fire to the few willow trees and nearly causing forest fires.  She let him control the make up thing for a short while before stealing money from his wallet while he napped and buy what she wanted.

At supper, Betsy’s mother said, “You look like a clown.”

“I’ve got no one to teach me how to be a woman.  What do you expect?”

“Your grandfather doesn’t want it on you and I’m not going to help you against him.  We’ve got to live here since I have no money.”

“We could have made it off this farm long ago.  You’re too scared to leave.  You were too scared to keep that old man from hitting me.  If there’s one thing I’m going to do it is get off this crummy farm.”

Betsy said all this loud enough for Grandfather to hear, but he dared not say anything.  Two months later, Betsy’s change attracted Harold who explained that the sweet smell of rain she enjoyed came from plant oils, dead bugs, and bacteria from animal feces rising from the ground surface when a storm’s low pressure dropped in.  Harold was always the techno type and he dreamed of being a scientist.  To Betsy the fresh rain became foul and deathly odors of death.  These were the harsh things he believed in as he led her into marriage a year before she would have graduated high school.

Betsy left her mother on a farm with more weeds than crops and a Grandfather who needed help eating breakfast.  “I have a marriage to work on so don’t depend on me to help you, Mother,” Betsy said on the eve of her elopement.  “It’s all too much of a commitment with you and Grandpa, anyway.  I want off the farm.  I don’t want to give, I want to receive.”

Back to the present: the two policemen stood outside Betsy’s car that she called home.  They talked into small dark boxes on their shoulders.  Betsy closed her eyes and remembered her first year of marriage.  In their Richmond apartment, she kept the lamp shades dusted clean and the light bulbs shined with window cleaner.  The bright light revealed her drab surroundings showing how she kept everything folded neatly in place.  Lots of lights and no secrets, she thought.  The clean lights shined all over my life and through it.

Harold got work as an assistant around a train yard helping to lash up multiple locomotives for high priority, hot shot freight trains.  He talked to Betsy one day about being an apprentice hostler running locomotives around the train yard for driving experience.  He said he would learn to be a true train engineer.  Within a quick year, he was riding low priority dog trains down the train track as a first step.  He gathered a lot of time waiting in a hole or side track for hot shot trains to take the steel tracks.

This made Harold live a lot of his time in another place away from Betsy like her father did when he died.  Over and over she experienced the growing agitation of departure and a sudden loss of commitment from Harold.  She had to fend for herself and he never mentioned the clean brightness in the apartment house she created.  Instead, when he came home he cut off the bright lights until only shadows remained.  He managed in the dim twilight better than she.  Why couldn’t he commit to me, she thought.

Betsy filled her daytime with employment in a law office.  She filed away people’s troubles as if they never existed.  In the evening with Harold gone, her bedroom looked like the closet of clothes had vomited.  Each morning before she got ready for work, Betsy realized that this blouse needed a button or this skirt had a wrinkle.  She would drop the discarded clothing on the hard floor and try something else on.  By the week’s end her bedroom floor looked like a land mine of clothes challenging anyone to traverse the small room without tripping.  But, of course, if someone tripped they would only fall on soft clothes.  That is, if someone else had been there to trip on them.  When Harold came home he saw none of this, only a tidy everything-in-its-place apartment with brightly lit lamp bulbs that he quickly turned off.

The only difference between waiting for her father on the boundless farm and waiting for Harold alone in a crowded city was the hard concrete below her feet instead of soft grass, car tires spinning along on asphalt for the quick sound of running water, and towers of steel girders a testimony to the brutal replacement of trees.  When Harold came home smelling like the greasy oil and spicy smoke of a diesel locomotive, it left a pain moving through her head, always there and mentally harsh.

“I want to understand where you’ve been,” she confronted her husband as he gulped down his supper.

“I was at work all day.  Shit, where do you think I was?  We don’t have enough money for me to afford a whore.”

“What’s it like to drive a train?”

“It’s big, noisy, and smelly.  You get dirty as soon as you step inside.  The hot shot trains got clean insides.  My broken padded seat makes my butt sore and we break down all the time.  I’m moving on from this job real soon.  I’m moving up to them hot shot trains who get priority and respect.  I’m going places.”

“What’s going to happen real soon for you to move up?  Will we move into a new house and start having kids?”

“Don’t push me right now.  I’m going to get my priorities straight first.  But, once I get on those hot shot trains, I’m going to be away from home more, particularly at night.  I don’t want you whining when that happens ‘cause it’ll get us that house somewheres.”

She watched him finish eating his steak and potato supper by running his bread around the plate soaking up what remained.  His plate looked like she had just washed it.  As he showered, she put it away without washing it like she usually did.  They went to bed together, yet he slept while she listened to his breathing.  Her fright over big change grew throughout the long night until she drifted off near daylight still afraid, particularly after Harold left for work.

Sometimes at night, Betsy felt like the tight apartment was an enclosed box.  Like the clover fields of her childhood, she wanted to have the warm feeling of space.  With Harold away, she enjoyed sitting in the apartment’s darkness by an open window watching shadows move on the distant street.  When she pulled up the wire screen and hung her head out, the acrid wind from the soiled city touched her long hair.  In the city distance, she heard the low rumble of freight trains making their passage through the sleeping city.  She wondered if Harold was on that one.

The freight train sound rumbled quietly at first, more of a pushing back of the waiting air, before becoming a defiant noise echoing off the immobile buildings around her.  The train sound receded quickly from its climax, sometimes followed by a long blast of a train horn like a goodbye from the city’s clutches.  She shrunk from the small window and pretended to be dead as the gloomy night screamed with sirens and other sounds of clutching, frantic people.

Betsy did not want to be alive when Harold rode the steel rails.  She wanted to live in the after life with her father so she could experience the mortal world at a safe distance.  Sometimes leaning on the window sill, she wished so hard to be a ghostly haunt that she cried in sobs letting her tears fall to the garbage cans below.  “I’m all that I have”, she pleaded to the sirens and yelling people outside.  Eventually the sill’s wood broke and put splinters in her forearms.  She left it broken.  Harold was not there to fix it.

At home between his coming and leaving, Harold told his secrets to Betsy when she pretended to sleep.  Maybe he thought his sins were forgiven or his guilt lifted when he talked to her in whispers in the early morning hours before he got up for work.  But, she wasn’t a Catholic priest hearing confession.  Harold filled her head with his vivid scenes of life’s lower side that he witnessed while sitting in the cabin of a slow moving diesel locomotive.  He distorted her vision of security.

Harold talked to Betsy as they laid side by side on their backs staring at the dark ceiling.  She breathed slowly and deeply pretending to be asleep while Harold whispered too many indiscretions, too many wrong decisions, and too many times looking for adventure.  He always finished with recollections and dreams he had of wishing to be a hero.

As a twenty two year old man, he told her that he had lost the only life he wanted to live.  Betsy’s husband was tortured with a lack of direction and possible future family responsibilities.  Betsy sensed his instability.  His experiences were taking him away from her as he sought sanctuary from his desires.  He directed his feelings toward another universe that she was not invited to go.  She did not know how to cope.

When Betsy was first told of Harold’s death, she stood in her living room grasping the heavy black receiver of the dial phone.  She wore a white dress with a slight color of blue on the embroidered hem and tight sleeve.  As she listened to the police officer’s raspy voice, she heard thunder from an approaching storm.  “Being with you is like being alone,” played loudly on the radio.

For weeks after his death, Betsy sometimes walked around the bigger apartment in a large floppy hat with a huge feather stuck out the tapered top, no bra or panties, and wearing one of Harold’s shirts that swallowed her body from her neck to her knees.  She drank black coffee and sugar cookies.  Sometimes she wondered what had been the last thing he thought about before dying.  She tried to visualize the final image his mind recorded, what he last smelled, and what he heard as his life ended.

A month after his death, Betsy rode the city’s metro rail to a downtown business section.  Her new employer worked her punching a key board and recording memoriams to the dead and just plain obituaries.  She had realized her other job had too many living people with too many problems.  Each day she pushed letters on a stained keyboard so someone else could read what was not there before.  On the long ride to and from work, she saw her fellow train commuters as handsome actors and beautiful actresses.  Her hair, once thick and red, laid butchered across her head closely cropped at odd lengths.  She declined the meddling use of her beauty.  She thought how both her men now lived in the after life where she could not see them.  Betsy took it as rejection and abandonment.  I want to be there, she complained to herself.  Let them live on this side of life.

Two months after she placed the phone receiver onto its cradle silencing the official voice on the other end, Betsy began placing Harold’s things in a cardboard storage box.  Among his things she found a seven year old National Geographic.  Water spots stained the yellow cover.  The glossy page with matching water marks described the Mojave desert, a place far from their home and much dryer.

Betsy wondered if Harold was in a desert now with her father.  Was that where ghosts lingered?  She felt them pulling her toward their other existence.  She wanted to join the two men who had left her adjusting to people in a mortal world where no one alive cared about her.  She wanted to join her men in that other world, but she did not have the courage to die.  Why don’t they want me, she thought?  Why can’t they help me cross over?  They haunted her apartment and she had to leave.

Harold’s dog train sometimes sat in the hole for hours off a spur from the main line and across from row housing where the other woman lived.  They met every time he stopped there.  This was his hot shot train story.  Betsy tried to imagine what Harold thought when he watched his girl friend step onto the rain soaked steel bars of a railroad track and stumble into the path of a hot shot freight train.

He pulled his dog cars to the train yard and finished the work day.  That night, he whispered to her from out of the darkness as they lay side by side in bed.  He had no dreams, only goals and desires.  Their lives will change, he promised when he thought she was asleep.  Betsy held her tears until the morning after he slipped out for work again.

A few weeks after the other woman died, Harold walked in front of a silver Dash Eight Amtrak locomotive.  His body made little noise against the reinforced frame.  No apparent damage to the passenger train except the coach cars had to deal with being several hours late to their finish their trips.

That was when Betsy stopped shining the light bulbs and turned off the bright lights that were growing dusty.

Published September 1, 1997, by Fayrdaw