UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
The Rose Lamp
All personal belongings had been stripped except those that could be auctioned. Windows hung open to air the rooms, which exuded a musty odor like sickness. At
Two weeks before this, she had been told, medically sterile tilt-cups and tissues filled the nightstand. More tissue, not many, littered the floor. The nursing staff enforced the unnatural quiet; even the flowers could not be left alone, those sent by well-wishers routinely ushered out of the room.
The old woman had coughed and complained of fatigue, the inability to breathe, and the starkness of the sunlight from a summer-window glaring in her eyes. At night, the help staff admitted, she had wandered through her house, her hands hungry for the feel of her things. She examined the staircase for new shadows and the slight cracks on the wood in the doorways. Sometimes, she opened her window for the soft moonlight and delicious air. One day, she stopped breathing altogether. Her name had been Ginger George.
Three weeks later, an auctioneer, wandered through the collection. There was a famous painting, and a smattering of antiques, china and linens. Pets had been disposed of. In this case, there was a burglar’s-clutch of fine jewelry, a handful, to be sold when it wasn’t apportioned specifically in the will.
Ginger, an older lady with white and pale gray whispering through her hair, sweet though austere, was the kind of lady who would buy an ornamental lamp. On this occasion, amidst the bric-a-brac, the lamp lusterously shimmered. There was no name anywhere on it, but it was obviously quality because the rose crystal gleamed like a living thing.
This lamp was made in the abstract shape of a woman’s body, similar to a wide-chest, small-waist and wide-hip dressmaker’s dummy, with no arms or legs, curving in gentle slopes. Every so often, a band of carved facets trailed its length. The lampshade was black and delicate. Similar to the bracelets and cufflinks once made with hair, it had a fine sheen of black threads, which gave the illusion of blackness to the old cream fabric beneath. On closer inspection, they were hair, perhaps from an Arabian’s tail. No person had traced the history of the lamp on the auction card; it was a simple rose crystal lamp, without model or make.
At the end of the auction several had bid for it. Finally, for $2000, Anastasia Perrin, Stasie to her friends, was the final bidder. She bought it because she had come to purchase one unusual thing. Geoff had told her, “Stasie, get out of the house. You’re driving me crazy moping about that cat.” Her cat, Mr. Higgs, died last month of natural causes, but after seventeen years of wonderful friendship with him, she found herself inconsolable.
Geoff was 75 years to her 73, so she decided they would not get another pet. Besides, without a cat they could go on vacation more easily and travel like they’d always planned to when Geoff sold the business. Go buy something, she thought. That simple. Go buy something and everything will be okay. That’s how men seemed to think. Still, she had to admit, after her purchase, the day suddenly seemed magical again. She pulled away from the estate sale with the top-down on the green convertible. She found herself singing a doo-wop song as she drove to their beach-house. She smiled again as the ocean air entered her nostrils and she pulled in the drive.
As always, the sight of her house, towering majestically on the cliff, pleased her. This was the house she’d always wanted. After fifty years of marriage, she’d had a wonderful life, the kind of life she always wished for other people that she liked. Geoff, though he worked his fingers to the nub in the beginning, had quickly capitalized on the elite’s need for elegant plumbing fixtures and after a few rough years they’d always had more than enough. Stasie sighed, thought how many people could live the life she had?
She was fit for 73, and her body didn’t pain her like many of her older friends’ bodies did. She was happy. She didn’t want to speak of her bowels and enemas incessantly. She was so happy, in fact, the loss of a little brown cat was the only trauma that would set her out of sorts for weeks. She teared up thinking about Mr. Higgs, then wiped the tears away.
It was late August, 1983. The air on the coast was warm and dry. Seagulls flew over the cliff and towards the waves. She grabbed the lamp from the trunk and walked up to the house. Geoff came out waving.
“What did you buy?” he asked.
“Good,” he said, noting her smiling face and looking relieved. He didn’t ask how much. He didn’t seem to care. He looked lonely this morning. “I missed you,” he said.
“Do you want to see the lamp?”
“Yes, show me the lamp.” She pulled away the tissue and he stared at it for a moment. The outdoor sun made it look speckled with dew, a bright glint of pink gem in the blue sky. “It’s pretty,” he said. She set it down on the table. Amidst the bills and junkmail, tourist pamphets fanned out over the cherry-wood and she saw he considered Berlin, Ecuador, and Tahiti. “Do you have a preference,” he asked.
They were planning on vacationing in October. Stasie’s grandaughter Bethany would be with them in a week or two and stay until mid-September. Stasie thought of her excitement and kissed Geoff a happy hello. “How are the rhododendrons?” He was supposed to have checked on them because a plant blight had been killing them.
“Fine, the insect-killing squirt bottle did wonders.”
Stasie’s green eyes sparkled. “Where will I put the lamp?”
“Why don’t you put it on the nightstand, where the lamp that Mr. Higgs knocked over was?”
“Splendid,” she said.
When she went to bed that night, Stasie fell immediately to sleep. She dreamed, for the first time in a long time. Since she’d gotten older, her dreams had been less frequent. This dream was about a beautiful young woman with long black hair. The woman danced in a meadow, wearing a white cotton dress. She then collapsed in a mock-heap and begins eating tiny watercress sandwiches from a basket, and handing some to Stasie.
Stasie wondered if her granddaughter’s visit was spurring this dream. She didn’t even like watercress. As usual, Geoff woke up beside her and kissed her good morning. She put on her old khaki pants and went out to the garden. The tomatoes looked good.. In general, the vegetables looked better than the flowers. Stasie felt bored. She missed her cat. A lump came to her throat. Buying something was only a good thrill for a few hours. She didn’t feel up to it today, but decided to call her daughter.
“When does Bethany get here?” she asked.
“Next Wednesday. She told me today she can’t wait to be at the old house again. She can’t wait to see you.”
“We can’t wait to see her!”
Stasie and Geoff tooled around until Wednesday came, and then picked their granddaughter up at the airport. She looked thin. Too thin. “Hello, m’girl,” Geoff said. “How is that college life treating you?”
“Great, I love it there,” Bethany said. Stasie looked at her again. She seemed happy, her pale freckled face was smiling, but her eyes were rimmed with red. The black beneath her eyes had been hastily covered with pale beige make-up. Her red curls looked unbrushed, clothes rumpled.
“What do you want to do while you’re here?” Stasie asked.
“Play tennis. Go sailing. Hang out with you old folks.”
“Do you want to go buy something?”
“What, grandma? Why? Do you need something.”
“Just go buy something,” Stasie said, remembering how she used to take Bethany out and purchase hair bows and long spiral suckers. “Maybe a cinnamon roll?”
“Sure, grandma. I’ll have a cinnamon roll with you.”
When they dropped Geoff off at the house, Stasie said, “What’s wrong with you, Beth. You look like hell.”
Bethany smiled. “You don’t mince words, do you Grandma?”
“I want to know,” Stasie said. “I want my girl to be happy.” She called all of her daughters and granddaughters ‘her girls’. So far, there were three.
“I shouldn’t tell you.”
“Tell me now, because I’m not getting any younger,” Stasie said, then, “My cat died, you know.”
“Oh no,” Bethany replied. “Mr. Higgs? How sad for you. When did that happen?” Bethany’s expression was tragic, truly sorrowful.
“A little bit ago,” Stasie said, glad someone other than Geoff immediately understood what she was going through and didn’t think it was silly to be upset.
“My boyfriend broke up with me,” Bethany said. “Last week. He was my Chemistry Professor.”
“Oh,” was Stasie’s response.
“He said I was too young for him and it damaged his professional life.”
“Oh,” she said again, not knowing what to tell her.
“Let’s eat a roll,” Bethany replied, smiling bravely. “I’m hungry.”
The days streamed by in a flurry. Bethany and Stasie went out all over town. Every night, Stasie collapsed into bed, exhausted. She began to feel tired all the time. By Tuesday of the next week, she decided she wanted to stay in bed and rest a day. The lamp glittered dimly. Bethany came in and asked, “Are you okay, Grandma?”
“Yes,” I’m fine,” she said, which was true, but the dreams with the young girl in white kept coming to her. She vaguely recollected that the girl’s name was Farrah.
During the day they came while she napped and at night just as she fell asleep. But dreams were difficult to pin down. Who knew in what part of her sleep they arrived? A year in a dream could be five minutes to a sleeper. Stasie knew that.
Once, she was out on a lake, boating with Farrah, eating tiny strawberries and drinking wine. Another time, she sat in what must have been Farrah’s house—eating dinner at a long dark table. In these dreams she saw a man’s hands, but never a face, though she sometimes heard the two of them talking. One day in her dreams she asked Farrah a question, “What year is this?”
“1754,” Farrah said. In this dream, Stasie plaited Farrah’s long hair for bed. On the nightstand, there was a lamp that looked exactly like hers, except it had a shade made from broken shells.
“Is this your lamp,” she asked.
“Yes, Shelley made it for me.”
Stasie assumed ‘Shelley’ was the male voice. The sound of something outside the dream suddenly disturbed her sleep. Geoff came in and dropped a brown bag on the dresser. “Tomatoes from the garden,” he announced. He offered to prop her up with more pillows, but she declined. “You okay, Stasie?”
“Yes. I’m sure I’ll be fine,” she said, hoping to rush him out, longing to go back to sleep to reenter the dream. He left, but Bethany came in and kept her awake by reading books aloud.
“Grandma,” she said wistfully, “you’ve been in bed for two days now.”
“Have you ever had a dream,” Stasie asked, “one that you don’t want to wake up from? I know this sounds strange, but my dreams have been so real. They make me feel like I’m living them.”
“Yes,” Bethany said. “Like you’re living in someone else’s apartment?”
Stasie stared at the lamp. “Yes. And you know what? This lamp was in my dream, but it had a different lampshade. Must be a flicker of the unconscious.”
Bethany came in the next morning. “Grandma, I won’t be here much longer—do you think you’d be well enough to take out the convertible today? I’ll drive, if you’re too tired.”
Stasie put her feet in her slippers, yawned, stretched and looked in her closet. “Yes, let’s go out today.” The sea breeze was invigorating. Some of the fatigue of the previous days left her. She and Bethany joked and shopped all day. Beth’s cheeks looked pinker and her smile more real.
That night, Stasie found herself wandering the halls. She felt short of breath and touched the afghan blankets over the couches soothingly. She wandered down to the guest bathroom and picked up the shells that lined the upper flats of the tiles where the shampoos were. Each of the shells was a memory of a trip she had taken with Geoff. She listened to the oceans inside them, the roar of the echoes sounding perfect with the cold of the tiles at her feet. She imagined standing on the beach to calm herself.
The dream she’d had earlier that night was disturbing. She saw the man’s hands again, but this time they gestured angrily at Farrah. Farrah shouted, “Get out! Get out of here,” and neither of them spoke to her. The hands gestured to the lamp. He said, “I made this for you Farrah. It’s looks like you. Maybe I’ll take it with me when I go.” Farrah ran to the door and threw her body in front of it. Her arms went around his neck and they began to kiss, hungrily, angrily, passionately. He lifted her light body up against the door and they began to make violent love. Stasie woke up feeling winded, then began her tour of the halls. She went back to her room and looked at the lamp. She settled in on the pillows again. Looking at it sideways, the lamp did look like a woman.
“Grandma,” Beth said the next day. “I am worried about how much you’re sleeping.”
“Is this something that’s been ongoing?”
“No,” Stasie said.
“I think you should see a doctor.”
Stasie went in to the doctor’s and came out with a perfect bill of health. He said she was fitter than ever. She took Beth and they played tennis on the clay courts near her house. She felt awake, alert. Only when she stepped in the house did she feel as though she was exhausted. “Now for a nap,” she said.
Bethany, who seemed happy enough that she’d gone to the doctor, went to watch television in the living room. Stasie fell asleep. She saw Farrah in the field again. This time Farrah was with a man she’d never seen. A young man. Stasie knew his voice wasn’t like Shelley’s. Farrah laughed. Farrah waved to her briefly. Farrah wrapped her long black hair around the boy’s naked back. Actually, the boy looked 16. Stasie heard the clopping of a horse’s hooves in the distance. Farrah looked up. Her eyes were afraid.
Stasie heard a knocking at her door. “What? Who is it?” she asked, sitting up in a fright.
“Geoff. It’s Geoff. I came to check on you.”
Stasie was compelled to sleep again, but the concern in his eyes woke her up abruptly. “I’m fine,” she said. “Don’t worry about me.” She took a few deep breaths and felt like her lungs had diminished in capacity.
She rose and ate dinner with the others. “We must have a carbon monoxide problem,” she stated. “Does anyone feel tired?”
Geoff looked at her strangely and said, “No. I feel fine.” As he said that, she passed out, but when they took her outside to the car for a trip to the hospital, she woke up and began breathing normally. She sat upright in the living room and drank a cup of coffee. In the mail that day, a package came from the auction. There was a letter of apology, a request for the lamp’s return, and a $2000 check addressed to Stasie. The missive stated the lamp had been sold before the auction occurred, for a lump sum of $60,000, to a Museum in New York, but the paperwork had been misplaced. It was handmade, one of the finest pieces crafted in the early 18th century.
“I’m not giving it back,” Stasie said. “I bought it and they sold it to me. They’ll have to explain their mistake to the museum.” She sat in her room on her bed and wrote them a letter immediately.
Dear auctioneers: I am within my rights to keep the lamp because I bought it. You will have to explain to the museum that you made a mistake. I’m sorry.
She put it in the mailbox after writing it. Geoff said, “Why don’t you just send them the lamp. We don’t need it. It seems strange to me anyway. It has a peculiar glow to it. And what kind of hair is on that shade.”
Beth said, “Grandma, I think you should keep it.”
Stasie began to breathe heavily again. She reached up from her position on her bed and turned it on the table. “Look how pretty it is,” she said. “I’m not sending it back.” That night she dreamed that she stood beside Farrah’s dresser while she was almost sleeping and Shelley’s voice was yelling, angry. He said, “You make me so angry Farrah.” His hands entered her dream. They approached Farrah’s neck and closed over it.
“No,” Stasie shouted. “Stop.” Shelley could not hear her. His hands squeezed tighter. Farrah’s head rolled back and forth on the pillow. Her long black hair writhed like a many-stranded snake. Farrah opened her eyes.
The next day, the day Beth left, Stasie felt shaken and weak. She went to the airport with Geoff and took Bethany to her flight. The airline’s steel beast sailed up into the clouds. Her mail came at 3 p.m.. She received another letter, actually a glossy portfolio about the lamp. It’s owners were listed ever since 1955: Gloria Edderly, Darla Peters, Nanette Pram, Clarise Dunne, Georgia St. Claire, Melanie Ryan, Vannessa Starlter and Ginger George. The pamphlet went on to give a description of the legend of the lamp. The legend was a torrid love affair between an artist and his model. In the legend, the artist strangled her to death and she had been found shorn of all bodily hair.
Stasie stood before the lamp. Her heart beat quickly. She swore she saw Farrah’s long lashes blinking through the pink, her dark head shaved close to bald, unevenly, and her eyes blinking shut. Stasie’s legs gave out and she braced herself with one wrist on the table while the other flailed out to reach the bed. In doing so, her hand accidentally glanced the lamp and flung it across the room to thud against the closet door. It broke into shards when it hit the floor. The shade hung grimly to the frame.
Tiny pieces of rose crystal were everywhere. The fixture separated from the stone and the inside of the vase was hollow. Stasie heard a strange sucking sound as if an enormous inhale had occurred.
The lampshade was crushed and stood on its side. In the dents where metal on the top bent inwards, the hair separated from the fabric. Stasie saw a tiny fragment of shard where there had once been a piece of shell and the split ends of black hair glued down beneath the smooth veneer. She thought of Farrah’s long black hair and the lamp that had been shaped like her body. The shade would have been her head. One arm felt cold and she grabbed it with her opposite hand to rub the skin. She noticed a single strand of black hair clung to her, stretching from her ring-finger to her elbow in twisted spirals. The dark hair funneled between the tiny light hairs on her arm like a black adder through a wheat-field. She plucked it from herself and left without looking back.
“Geoff,” she said. “The lamp is broken in there. Will you sweep it up?”Heather Fowler received her M.A. in English and Creative Writing from Hollins University in May of 1997. She has taught Literature, Writing, and Composition related courses at Modesto Junior College, California State Stanislaus, and UCSD. Her stories have appeared or will appear in: Feminist Studies (forthcoming 2009 or 2010), A cappella Zoo (forthcoming Fall or Winter 2008/2009), SubLit (forthcoming August 2008); CityWorks 2008 (June 2008); Coming Together: With Pride (June 2008), WordRiot (May 2008), Storyglossia (May 2008),Temenos (Fall 2007), Mississippi Review online (Fall 2007), See You Next Tuesday (2006), Frigg: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry (Winter 2006), the muse apprentice guild (October 2002), artisan, a journal of craft (September 2002), Literary PotPourri (May 2002), Exquisite Corpse (May, 2001), The Barcelona Review (May, 2001), Penumbra (May 2001), B & A New Fiction (Jan. 2001), Barbaric Yawp (Dec. 2000), and Zoetrope All-Story Extra (June 2001, October and December 1999). Her poetry has recently been featured at Empowerment4Women (November 2007) and INTHEFRAY (February 2008), as well as having been selected for joint first place in the 2007 Faringdon Online Poetry Competition judged by Professor C. C. Norris, Distinguished Research Professor at Cardiff University. Her poems are also published in various venues including: the Map of Austin Poetry, The Coast Highway Review, the Driftwood Highway 1999 Anthology, Joe's Journal, Best of the Beach 1998, The Publication, and assorted other venues. She currently seeks agent representation for her short ficiton and her newly finished novel entitled Gravity.
© 2008 Underground Voices