The Vintage Lamp – a short story (Happy Halloween)
Most folks in town described Anita Perkins with peculiar detail. A few could talk about Anita for up to three hours without repeating a story, many could hold an audience while three consecutive beers were consumed at Taylor’s Saloon, but just about everyone held onto one story or another that they could tell to a traveling relative or at a convention three states away.
Mary Stuart said Anita once asked her to change the date for an outdoor gathering because it would rain so hard that day it would be difficult to both attend and enjoy the event under such moist conditions. Anita had touched Mary’s back and said the years of pain would be a shame. Mary was suspicious and curious of Anita Perkins from then on because it rained that June afternoon, she slipped on a concrete patio while rushing the olive tray inside, and her back has never been quite the same.
Most of the other stories are not as prolonged as Mary’s back ailment, where she will feel some pain off and on for 10 years. Many were quite simple, but made an impression on people the same way a man looks at a ripe apple in the bottom of a Coke bottle. Mystery has a way of carrying itself from mouth to mouth and yet no one would ever ask if the Coke bottle owner had tied his empty container to the branch of an apple tree and let the apple grow up inside. That would dispel the mystery and no one would have anything to talk about on weekends.
The grade school principal said the Perkins woman tried to talk him out of purchasing a $150 dress for his wife. Anita said it would be embarrassing for his wife to open the gift in two months and, having gained 20 pounds on a family vacation, she would not be able to wear the garment. Mrs. Graham left Mr. Graham three weeks after her birthday once the weight gain touch¬ed off a series of arguments that caused irreparable damage in their marriage. Mr. Graham was convinced Anita was both a tramp and a witch. He tells that story at every haircut on the corner of First and Lincoln. Those who listen repeat it now as the number two story about Anita Perkins, just after Mary Stuart and the rain.
Anita was a tall, big boned woman, with long, light hair, frizzy, the kind that if caught in the right light made it look like she had a halo. The clothing she wore was always cartoony-colored. Sometimes she wore red knee socks, a bright yellow skirt, and a blue and green tapered blouse. She always wore a flower in her hair. The red roses looked best when she wore her blue dress. Harvey Stetson liked Anita’s blue dress so much he kept a fresh rose behind the counter every day in case she came in wearing it and had forgotten to put a flower in her hair. To date, Anita has been in Harvey’s Feed and Grain Store once. Anita spent seven minutes getting warm in Harvey’s store when the bus was late on the day she was having the oil changed on her car.
They never even spoke.
Anita Perkins had built herself a reputation for precognition in town. The local newspaper even once reported that Anita had requested and had been turned down by the city for a stop sign to be placed at an insignificant intersection 17 blocks from her own home. The intersection was the scene of 7-year-old Lidia Ketchman’s death nine weeks later when Mr. Graham was driving too fast and didn’t see Lidia as he was traveling to an alimony hearing. A city councilwoman remembered Anita commenting after the monthly meeting that Mr. Graham’s job loss would be a shame, and that the drinking would only make matters worse. Of course Mr. Graham started drinking after the accident, what with the school superintendent’s daughter dead and everything, started missing too much work, was fired, and spent 16 months without work or character.
With all the stink about Anita Perkins, and the small size of the town to discuss matters properly, the thought of someone challenging the powers of so legendary a figure would seem unreal. But Bud Collins and Steve Jackson were curious.
Bud did not directly collect or inquire about the Perkins woman. He didn’t have to. Steve Jackson, his roommate on Roosevelt Street, did all of the collecting and inquiring. Steve claimed he saw Anita purchase a dozen candles and four gallons of kerosene three days before the two-day power outage in ’05’. Most people had to stand in line for those items when the lights went out, but Anita sat comfortably at home.
Steve had it figured that Anita would slip up some day and expose herself in front of the townspeople with something like a text on witchcraft, a bottle of demonic potion, or maybe a voodoo doll. Someday, he said, she was going to actually be caught doing something in public that would lead him to the source. It was the source of her powers that intrigued Steve.
Steve and Bud spent the following Saturday parked a half-block east of Anita’s green three-story home on Pearl Street. It was the only home in Huntersville that had a lookout tower. The observatory was like a giant ice cream cone attached to the north side of the top floor.
A retired fisherman had the home built in 1889 with money he’d won gambling on a train from Philadelphia to Chicago. Garson Stiles said his grandfather once told him the home was the center of controversy in 1894 when it was rumored the old fisherman, Girty Langer, had built a kind of contraption that was going to change the way people lived. Girty was the kind of man in town that people respected because he had forged and completed a noble career in the East and had chosen Huntersville as a place to retire. New money was welcomed in Huntersville in 1889 and especially so from a salty gray-haired gentleman who minded his own business and paid taxes on time.
It seems Girty was overheard talking to an out-of-towner in a city tavern one evening about this thing he was building in his cellar. The story was picked up in fragments from James Tuttle who was within eavesdropping distance but whose hearing had gone bad after a day-long battle in the war between the states. James didn’t know exactly what Girty was building, how long he’d been building it, or even what kind of changes it was going to make in people’s lives. Casey Randall was a clerk with the electric company then and said Girty’s monthly bills were three times higher than most folks with a house the size of his. Sitting around the fireplace at Will’s Tavern, Brady Fisher matched Casey’s story with a list of packages that arrived at the post office for Girty over a two-year period.
Even the Presbyterian minister joined ’round the fireplace when Brady pulled the crumpled paper from his pocket and held it out to read.
“January thirty-first, postmarked, London, England. February twelfth, New York City. April first, Paris, France.” Brady read on for two minutes, pausing only to get help on a pronunciation, or to describe the size and weight of some of the packages. Casey was the kind of man who did regular things at regular intervals and did not favor anything as impractical as a puzzle.
“Now what would a man do with trappings from all those places?” he asked. “What’s he building down there anyway?”
Casey, James, Brady, the Reverend Fox, and the others, scratched the sides of their heads, made firm and straight stares up at the ceiling, and as a group drank over 40 noggins of beer that evening and everyone of them went home without even a reasonable guess at what Girty had in mind.
The subject came up four consecutive Saturday nights and still no one could answer the favored question in the minds of Huntersville’s leading citizens. Between the fourth and fifth Saturday, Girty was buried just outside the city limits after his heart gave out. The home was willed to and taken possession six months later by Girty’s niece, who neither mentioned nor alluded to a cellar contraption that would change man’s destiny. Clara Reese willed the home to her daughter in 1936, and Anita purchased it in 1983, four days before Stella Reese was placed in a home for the aging, where she died the following year.
Garson heard these stories when he was 20 years old, in 1944, and repeated them some 60 years later, after his grandson, Steve, began inquiring about the previous owners of Anita’s home.
From the driver’s seat of his beige sedan, Steve wondered if there truly was some crazy machine in the house and that maybe Anita had happened upon it after her purchase 11 years ago.
After daylight passed Steve and Bud got out of the car and sat in the grass in front of the Dawson’s house. The Ford rolled an entire car length before either man took notice. Steve swore later that he hadn’t left the car in gear. However it happened, the car rolled, and with it, Steve and Bud ran behind, both hoping that years of watching daredevil car chases on television had paid off.
Neither of them caught up with the car until seven feet of Carol Bronson’s new split rail fence lay wasted, three shrubs the Coleman’s wanted taken out anyway were run over, and the bottom two wooden steps of Anita Perkins’ front porch lay in splinters. About the same time the two arrived on the scene and were only beginning to wonder how to explain the car, Anita Perkins opened her front door.
No human being should be treated to more than three or four moments of real terror in their lives, and one of them should be explained away as easily as saying the boogey man does not live under your bed. He lives under someone else’s bed in a town you never heard of, can’t be in two places at one time, and is not fond of travel.
Learning to explain away terror can’t be done in some cases, like war, and during earthquakes and things. And like some quick and subtle disaster dished out by Mother Nature, having Anita Perkins open her front door and see you standing on her lawn, in the dark, next to your car where no parking space had been intended, and having no way to come closer than eight feet to each other because there were some missing steps, is a terror no human being should even watch from a distance.
But what happened was as gentle and understanding and casual as saying thank you after receiving a pleasurable gift from a close friend. Anita Perkins looked straight across the splinters on the hood of Steve’s car and spoke two simple sentences.
“My telephone is in the entry here. I hope no one was hurt.”
As Steve was about to explain that they probably wouldn’t have to phone anyone, and that they could just back the car out onto the street again, and return in the morning with a check for the damages, the front right tire on the car hissed and went flat, steam began pouring from the radiator, and the sound of the engine died. Since there was no need to say what he was thinking now, Steve and Bud climbed up onto Anita’s front porch and step¬ped inside.
From the entry hall there was a warm feeling standing on solid mahogany floors. The golden glow of turn-of-the-century lamps lit up dark corners and brass door knobs. Two sitting rooms opened left and right of the entry, a staircase made one long appeal to the second floor, and an orien¬tal runner marked a path back into the kitchen area. There were fresh flowers all around and from the sitting room facing west, came the sounds of a harpsichordist playing Bach. The smell of freshly baked pumpkin bread hung in the air.
Anita remained still, until Steve and Bud had their fill of looks around. She pointed toward the black telephone on a wooden stand at the bottom of the stairs. After the phone call, Steve and Bud moved toward the door and were stopped when Anita spoke.
“Don’t you want what you came for?” she asked.
Bud could not reason an eye level higher than the entry floor, and Steve imagined what range of damage a woman her size could do between where they were standing and the time it would take to reach the street.
“It’s important that it be moved tonight,” she said.
Anita walked into the sitting room where the music played and stopped by a lamp on an end table in front of the window facing the street. The lamp had an ornately-carved rosewood base and the shade was made from cut glass of probably 80 different colors, all mixed into a swirling form, that, when studied for very long, intimidated those who gazed.
Steve and Bud moved into the room and stared at the lamp.
“Girty had it all figured wrong,” Anita said. “He thought it could just stand here in front of this window forever. But I know better. It must go tonight, or it probably won’t ever work again.”
Steve moved closer to the lamp, then fixed his eyes on Anita, who had taken a seat on a couch on the opposite side of the room.
“Do you have a problem with your lamp?” Steve asked. “Do you want me to fix it for you?”
Anita sat up straighter and closed her eyes.
“You have to trust my understanding of the lamp,” she said. “ I’ve had it for 11 years. I’ve worked with it. I’ve followed Girty’s instructions. You must take it tonight and place it in your front room, in front of the window facing west. There were some things that Girty didn’t take into account, and I’ve corrected it all. Now it has to be moved.”
Bud was restless.
“What exactly does your lamp do?” he asked.
“It changes things,” Anita said. “ It makes things better. But you have to follow the book. I’ve made all of the corrections.”
“What book?” Bud asked.
Anita moved her right hand slowly and laid it on top of the table next to the couch, on an enormous book with a leather cover and gold lettering.
Two hours later, sitting on the floor of their front room, Bud inspected the lamp carefully and Steve studied a page in the book that showed the town plan for Huntersville. The hand-drawn illustration had an “X” marking the spot where Anita now lived with a lot of scribbling next to it, and a grouping of numbers that Steve thought were the longitude and latitude of the spot where the lamp had sat all of those years.
In more recent ink, there was an arrow drawn from that spot to the location of Steve and Bud’s apartment on Roosevelt Street. Beside that was more math, and a note: “the window in front, facing west.” On a later entry in the book was a year, a day, and a time. Steve recognized two of the three and then looked at his watch.
“We have three minutes,” he said.
Bud put the lamp down and gazed across the room at Steve.
“What happens in three minutes?” he asked.
“The instructions say to follow the log,” Steve said. “The log, according to the markings here, has been completed, without error or interruption, since 1894. There’s only one entry that has not been completed. It’s the last one. In less than three minutes, we’re supposed to simply turn on the lamp.”
Bud got up from the floor and went to the window facing west. In the darkness everything seemed to be quiet. The homes across the street had sprinklings of lights on here and there. Just below the window of their apartment, Barry Steiner was sitting in his car, smoking a cigarette as usual, while he killed time waiting on his wife who was babysitting the Tucker’s two and-a-half-year-old girl, Gilda Marie. A small dog slept in the grass between Steiner’s car and the sidewalk.
Bud stepped aside while Steve placed the lamp gently on the table and plugged it in. No more words were spoken in the room.
At the appointed time, Steve and Bud both watched from the window and Steve reached down and threw the switch.
Barry was getting impatient. His wife had been due to finish 30 minutes ago, and he had not seen the Tucker’s blue station wagon pull into the drive yet. He had sat at this intersection every Tuesday and Saturday night for almost a year now, and Hilda hadn’t ever been more than 25 minutes late. From where he sat, he had the environment around him memorized. He knew every home, every car, and every tree. He could almost predict who would pass on foot and who would drive by.
When he crocked his head back in the seat and looked at the window, the color startled him. His right arm moved quickly forward to catch the balance he really hadn’t lost, but had imagined. His hand hit the horn by mistake.
When the Tucker’s dog, Pepper, heard the horn, he jumped up from his nap, and ran out into the intersection.
Mary Stuart did not see the dog until the last second, but swerved sharply to the right on instinct, ran off of the roadway, and came to a stop halfway up Clara Colverson’s front lawn.
Gilda Marie Tucker, who was sitting in the middle of the intersection picking up a doll that she dropped, smiled.
“Pepper. You come home,” she called out.
Hilda Steiner screamed from the Tucker’s front door and did not stop running until she had Gilda Marie safely in her arms again.
Gilda Marie Tucker did not thank Steve or Bud for turning on the light that summer evening, and neither Steve nor Bud remembered the name of the little girl in the street 51 years later when Gilda Marie Tucker Coakley made her inaugural address to the nation.