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Arthur T. Lee

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Nighlight      Download this Full Story
By Arthur T. Lee
Thursday, July 24, 2008

Rated "PG" by the Author.

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The day Joseph and his family moved into the neighborhood, ambulances, news cars, and hundreds of people filled the street...

When Joseph's parents separate, he has a hard time finding the comfort a nightlight brings to the darkest of nights.

     

            The day Joseph and his family moved into the neighborhood, ambulances, news cars, and hundreds of people filled the street in front of their new home.
            “What the--?” Joseph’s father started.
            Joseph pushed his face to the glass, letting the heat of his own breath fog the windows. With the point of his middle finger, he traced a box like a T.V., cleared out the middle with his palm, then sat back to watch the commotion outside.
“Can’t even get in the driveway. It’s all blocked off. I wonder what’s going on?”
Mary shrugged, quizzical, nervous, her lips pursed tight, as if she had just taken a large bite out of a lemon. She rolled her head to the side and shot a quick glance at Joseph’s father.
            “Now don’t start with me, honey,” he said. “We all agreed this move was the best. For all of us.” Then in a whisper, “For Joseph.”
            Joseph heard his name clearly, but he pretended not to notice. He didn’t care anyway. He was too busy looking at all the people. Men, women, children, even dogs and cats ran around. Some smiled and heaved back in an occasional laugh; others stood still, silent, waiting for something, holding back tears.
A Chinese lady in a bright pink suit coat and a matching skirt stood in front of a blinding light on the top of a Channel 6 News camera. On the back of another news van, a long antennae with a small satellite dish on it extended high into the air like a spaceship. Directly in the driveway, the sirens of an ambulance flashed silver and red.
            Behind Joseph, his father and Mary argued about the move, how they had had it good in New England, what Seattle didn’t have to offer, what about Joseph’s feelings, how hard school might be, will he make friends, not in the summer, these sort of things lead to depression, how he’s just a kid, and a lot of ‘trust me’s’.
            When Joseph was seven years old, his mother got sick and passed away. He went to the funeral. His dad cried a lot, but he couldn’t so everyone started to worry about him.
“Watch him, Ed,” people would say when they came to drop off a casserole or salad.
 “My nephew, when his mom died, he didn’t talk for months. Months.”
“He’s depressed, Ed. He didn’t even cry, for Lord’s sake.”
“He needs a mother.”
“I know this…girl.”
“She’s really nice.”
 “Let me just set you up on one date. One date, Ed. One.” 
Joseph’s father finally gave in, “Fine. For Joseph.”
            He came home late that night and when Joseph awoke the next morning, a lady in a pink bathrobe greeted him with a plate of warm pancakes. She had blond hair. Strands of it, formed into a tight bun, poked out wildly, like dull overgrown grass.
            “Hi Joey,” she said. “I’m Mary.”
            She smiled, holding out the plate of pancakes, blinking really fast. Joseph hesitated, but eventually took the plate, whispering a “Hi”, and sat down at the table to eat. But all he could think about was his mother. Her hair was brown and shiny. His dad came in soon after, his familiar, blue-gray sweat bottoms and a thin white t-shirt.
            “Hey sport,” and he rustled Joseph’s hair, sitting down. “Ooh, pancakes.”
            Three weeks later, Mary and Joseph’s father married. It was a small wedding, only Joseph and a few of Mary’s close friends, and Joseph’s Uncle Jack who watched him and made sure he went to school and did his homework while his father and Mary went away for a few days.
They had a lot of fun together. They ate lots of ice cream and sometimes Jack let Joseph stay up late to watch T.V. with him. One time they watched a movie about a boy who could fly.
And Joseph cried.
            “You okay their bud?” his uncle asked him.
            Joseph sniffled and nodded his head. He didn’t know why he was crying. He just was.
            “Okay, let’s get you to bed.”
            Joseph complied and got up to go to his room. At the corner, leading into the hallway, he turned.
            “Thanks for letting me stay up, Uncle Jack,” he said.
            Jack smiled and gave him the thumbs up. Joseph went to his room, hopped into bed and flipped off the lamp. His mother had given him a space ship nightlight for his fifth birthday. It shone brightly, silver and red, illuminating the few inches directly around it. Joseph stared at it for a long while, listening, until he fell asleep, to the faint eruptions of periodic laughter coming from the television in the living room.
            A couple of days later, Mary and his father returned. Joseph was sitting at the table alone, working on a math problem, when the door banged open. Laughter and lots of pink, shiny bags with pink tissue paper filled the kitchen.
            “Hey sweetie,” Mary said, kissing Joseph on the forehead.
            Joseph looked own at his paper, blank, and tried to concentrate harder on his homework. His father flopped on the couch with a big sigh and closed his eyes. Mary immediately and excitedly showed Joseph all of the many things his father had bought her, dresses, shoes, earrings, and then she busied herself around the kitchen, checking the cupboards for food.
            “Your father, Joey, is adorable.” She opened the freezer. “What did you two eat, just ice cream?” She laughed. “I guess I don’t have to go shopping for a couple days still.”
            She looked at Joseph and smiled, then her brow wrinkled like one of those wrinkly dogs, and she walked over to Joseph, placing her hand on his shoulder. Her fingernails were painted a sparkly pink.
            “What are you working on, baby?”
             She looked at his math workbook, blank and soiled, and tilted her head slightly. Joseph could feel her peering over his shoulder so he just sat their, still, close to tears, waiting for her to turn and leave. An uncomfortable silence filled the air. She broke it.
            “Five take away five is zero, Joey.”
            The week after school got out that year, Joseph’s father came into his room and told Joseph that he had a surprise and he knew he’d like it.
Joseph’s family moved the next week.
            “A knew start,” his dad said. “I know you’ll love Seattle, Joseph. It’s just what you need.” Then after a long pause, “It’s what we all need, I mean, really.”
 
            The fog on Joseph’s side window slowly disappeared, and thin streamlets of condensation trembled from the top of the window, down through and across his finger-made box. He smooshed his face against the glass again, exhaling deeply, watching the fog creep up and up until the window was completely covered. It felt much cooler this time, cold, like ice cream, so he turned his head and placed his ear against it. His ears were hot, like fire. The window felt good. He examined his ear print, tiny and squiggly, and then placed his other ear against the window, closing his eyes, thinking of snow.
            “Joseph,” came the voice of his father. “Joseph, what are you doing?”
            Mary shot Joseph an understanding, condescending look and smiled, tilting her head slightly.
            “He’s just playing, Ed.”
            Joseph looked at them and for a few seconds they had eye contact. His father sighed deeply and turned away, looking out his window at the driveway they couldn’t get in.
It was a long driveway. It zigzagged up to the house, jagged and sharp. Tufts of green grass sprung up all over the small yard, wild clumps, bending under the wind. The house was two stories, a rich brown with white trim and a large rhododendron bush directly in front of the front room’s shiny, silver window.
            “Well, it’s not exactly like…you know,” commented Mary. “Is it?”
            Joseph looked at his father and shook his head, then, reaching over, turned up the radio, ignoring Mary’s comment. Mary sat back and stared out the windshield. Joseph wondered if she saw all the people staring back at her. He turned to his window and drew another box, clearing it again, watching the scene play out.
The Chinese lady in pink, taking a break, sat on the bumper of a station wagon, mingling with a few of the neighbors. A man to the side of her furiously scribbled notes on a pad of paper, stopping every few words or so to push up his glasses. He dropped his pencil and everyone turned their heads. The cameraman focused his camera elsewhere.
Mary reached over and turned down the music. Joseph’s father immediately turned it up. Then she went to turn it down and he grabbed her hand hard. She jerked away and turned the music down again, staring at him, warning him.
The blaring of sirens and the honking of a horn came from behind them, reprimanding Joseph’s father. He looked in the rear view mirror, and without a word, started the car and inched his way to the side, people molding around it, like clay-dough. He turned off the car and they sat in silence.
A police car made its way to the yellow tape and stopped. Two cops got out, their light blue uniforms like the sky, their shield-shaped badges twinkling brightly with each movement. They waved the people back, stepped over the tape and disappeared into the house.
            “Geeze. It must be serious. Do you think?” questioned Mary.
            “Probably just some old lady, heart attack or fell down or something,” Joseph’s father said. “Happens all the time.”
            Mary looked at Joseph’s father and they whispered about him again, how maybe all this was bad for him and upsetting, how it’s too close to home, does he understand death and what happened to you know, and maybe they should go, it’s too crowded, and lots of ‘trust me’s.’
            “Okay. C’mon son. Let’s get outta here. Too…” Joseph’s father searching for an excuse. “It’s too stuffy in here. Can barely breathe.”
            He opened the door and stepped out. Mary followed and they both looked at Joseph. Joseph glanced at the ambulance and people one more time. In the distance, protruding from a doorway, just beyond the ambulance, two men in bright white uniforms wheeled out a table on wheels; someone lay partly covered in a white sheet. Joseph strained to see it more clearly.
            “Let’s go, Joey. You want fresh air,” assured Mary.
            Joseph wiped away his window television screen and scooted over to the edge of the seat. His father lifted him up and set him down, grunting, pretending how Joseph was heavy and grown up. Mary grabbed at Joseph’s hand and pulled him through the crowd toward the house.
            “C’mon. You want to see the back yard.”
            She dragged him into the backyard, leading him by the hand, like a child at the zoo.
            The grass was overgrown in the back, too. A brown, mildewed fence surrounded it, cutting it in half, imprisoning everything inside. A large stump squatted directly in the middle of the backyard, shavings of chopped wood surrounding it. A plum tree stood tall, but alone in the corner. Its leaves had fallen, its branches bare, dark limbs twisting toward the sun, trying to find themselves. Joseph’s father reached in his pocket, searched, pulled out, and jangled a shining ring of gold and silver keys.
            “C’mon sport, let’s check it out,” he said.
            He ran around the side of the house and disappeared. Mary and Joseph sat on the stairs of the back porch. Joseph looked down at his shoes and watched the laces flip from side to side as he swayed his foot back and forth. Mary broke the silence.
            “Joey? Joey…why don’t you like me?”
            She gently traced wild patterns on the back of his neck, waiting for an answer. Joseph’s body tingled at her touch. He didn’t like it. He sat there thinking, wondering what she wanted him to do.
A little ant, hefting a yellow seed twice its size, came up out of a crack in the porch and spun around in circles. He jittered to the right and left, walked straight into Joseph’s sole, bounced off and continued going. Mary didn’t see him. She was too busy blowing at the back of Joseph’s hair.
            “Mary?” Joseph began, hesitantly.
            “Yes?” Mary responded with anticipation.
            Joseph paused again, trying to think of something to say, watching the ant walk away. It disappeared through the crack from which it had just emerged. Joseph inhaled deeply and let out a big sigh.
            “What color was my mom’s hair?”
            Joseph looked at her, searching, hoping she would answer, wanting, wanting her to tell him. Tears brimmed at the lip of his eyelids. He felt them. Mary looked puzzled, concerned. Her brow descended. She pursed her lips tightly together and exhaled.
            “I don’t know.”
Then she put her fist to her mouth and looked away. She gave up.
            The sliding glass door slid open. Joseph’s father poked his head out and smiled. The ambulance had gone, he told them, and so he moved the truck up to the front of the house. Everyone had gone home.
            “Weird. It’s like they all just disappeared. All those people.”
            Mary nodded at his observation, stroked Joseph’s hair and got up. She slid by his father and patted him lightly on the chest, sniffling.
            “He’s your son,” she whispered, but Joseph heard.
            Joseph got up and walked in, trailing close behind her. The house was empty. It was quiet, but when you spoke the sound echoed off the walls. Joseph’s father whooped really loudly and thumped his chest, playing, like King Kong, chasing them around the house. They all laughed hard.
The three of them spent the entire afternoon walking back and forth from the moving truck and into the house, separating at the living room. They each had our own path. Mary and Joseph’s father filled up their room and all the others and Joseph filled up his.
Joseph’s room was small and perfectly square with a big closet that you could walk in to. He carried in his stuffed animals, then his books, then a box of toys. Once, he bumped into some other boxes because his father had piled him up with too many things. When that happened, Joseph’s dad told him to be careful. He said it was fragile. Joseph continued on, feeling his way to his room—all the way to the end of the hall, on the right.
He began unpacking his boxes. He unpacked and organized as best as he could until the sky turned pink, then purple, then black. A few stars sparkled up high. Joseph sat in his room, in the dark, looking through his window, admiring each individual one. They were so different. Each one shimmered a little different than the one next to it. A flying star shot across the sky from one side of Joseph’s window to the next, like a spaceship. He reached over into his box and pulled out his nightlight. He plugged it in and stared at it.
“Hey, Sport. What are you doin’ in here?” Joseph’s father flipped on the light and the nightlight ceased to glow.
“Just thinking,” Joseph replied.
“Thinking? This is summer break, bud. C’mon. I hooked up the television in the front room. Me and you. C’mon. You wanna get out of here. It’s stuffy. We’ll watch some T.V., eat some ice cream, stay up late. A little man time.”
He stepped into the room, grabbed Joseph under his arms and started to pull him up.
“It’ll be fun,” he said. So Joseph got up and followed him out. And he flipped the light off on his way out.
Empty boxes and junk covered the living room floor. In the very corner, on a crumpled pile of newspaper, rested the television. Joseph’s father pulled up the microwave box and Joseph picked an old black trunk. His father tossed around some papers and picture frames, searching for the remote control. He finally found it behind him on his box and clicked on the T.V.
“Me and you, Joseph,” and he began flipping through the channels.
Channel 13Channel 4Channel 5Channel 6--a very pretty lady with long brown hair, a bright yellow blouse and a sparkling necklace about her neck came into focus. She sat next to an older man in a black suit with silver hair, shuffling papers.
A fire in the Weyerhaeuser building off of fifth street, a hit in run in Tacoma; two children in Everett missing, a bomb threat at Jefferson; traffic stuffed up because of The Boat Show, five-day forecast good.
And a big scare for residents of…” she went on.
The camera flashed to a Chinese lady in pink.
“Holy—“ Joseph’s father jumped. “Honey! Come here. Quick! We’re on the news.”
Mary came skipping down the hall, like a child on Christmas morning. A big smile spread across her face. She stared at the screen. In its reflection, Joseph saw all three of them.
Eight-year-old Michael Calawitz is back home tonight,” the news reporter started. Mary and Joseph’s father watched with increased excitement. The camera made a quick sweep over to the house, passing their moving van as it sat just hours before.
“There we are!” Mary jumped up and down. Joseph’s father scruffled Joseph’s hair, laughing.
 
Little Mikey was prushed—excuse me.” The lady in pink feigned a cough. “--was rushed to IndependenceHospital today, after jumping from the roof of his second story home. His parents say he has never shown any signs of being suicidal. His neighbor’s are shocked. When asked why he jumped, he responded that he wanted to fly. When questioned why he wanted to fly, the boy said, ‘Because I don’t want to play the piano.’ He returned home earlier this evening and doct--”
 
            Joseph’s father changed stations and then pressed the red off-button. The picture zapped away and the screen crackled.
            “Wanted to play the piano?” questioned Mary. “What a funny thing to say.”
            “Yeah,” agreed Joseph’s father. “I wonder what that means.” And after a while of pondering, “And that’s why we couldn’t get into our home right away? I thought it was something serious.”
            Then he stood up, walked to the front door and opened it to let some air in. He shook his head several times and looked at Joseph.
            “Kids. I’m sure glad you’re not like that, Joseph.”
             He smiled and walked into the kitchen, where Mary had already opened a pack of Top Ramen and was boiling it. Joseph sat alone in the living room, listening to the banging of a wooden spoon on a metal pot, stirring, breaking down the noodles. He looked out the door. A lamp shimmered in the window on the second story of Michael Calawitz’s house, like a star. Joseph looked back at the television, staring at the twinkling of his own eyes in the screen’s reflection, and he wondered if Michael’s mom was reading him a bedtime story.

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