Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Lighthouse

BY DAN CHAON

Lighthouse

Lucy had been living in the house only a short time when she began to notice what appeared to be the sound of a boy crying softly somewhere out in the back yard.

Boy: she means young man, a teenager, maybe someone about her own age or a little younger, perhaps.

She opened the sliding glass door and flicked the switch so the floodlight came on. The trees and the shadows of the trees tangled together. She wasn’t the type of person who would stand at the back door and call, “Hello…? Hello…?” and so she just stood there peering out. Frowning.

She and George Orson had moved here, just until they got things figured out. George Orson was not only her boyfriend but also her former high school English teacher, which had complicated things back in Pompey, Ohio.

Still, she might have preferred to run away together to somewhere different.

This was the house where George Orson’s parents had lived, where George Orson had grown up, not exactly a mansion but pretty large nevertheless. It sat along an old highway next to an abandoned motel somewhere in the middle of Nebraska. Ten miles from the nearest town. No neighbors, not even any houses within sight of the front porch.

Of course when you live in such a place and you think that you hear the disembodied sound of a boy crying in the back yard it might occur to you that the place might be haunted. She wasn’t exactly that type of person, not exactly the type for example to use the word haunted. She didn’t believe in it. Not exactly. She didn’t think ghost or hallucination or any specific word, nothing that would commit her to a certain course of thought. She had been trying to keep her mind as blank as possible in some ways, clean and focused.

There were times when it could very well be that she herself was the ghost, the hallucination.

At least, that was what she sometimes found herself thinking.

Mornings, she would stand at the sliding glass door at the edge of the kitchen, looking out at the trees that made a ring around the backyard fence.

The sun was rising, and she was awake. She had started to get up early, she was eating breakfast for the first time in years, a piece of toast to clear the sour taste from her mouth, oatmeal to put a lump in her stomach that would keep her from being nauseated.

No, it was not morning sickness.

She was not pregnant, not according to the test. She sent George Orson back into town to the drugstore to get another one, and then a third one.

She was–what?–Ill. Vaguely ill. Just a little depressed, said George Orson.

She would look out while her oatmeal was cooking and often hundreds of grackles were alit on the bony limbs of the dead trees, the small black birds as thick on the branches as leaves.

Of course, she had an idea of what might be wrong.

It was that crying boy! That was part of it, at least.

In the middle of the night, she’d wake up, and it was always that hour between three and four and she would find herself wending her way through the darkened rooms and hallways of the old house. All the objects in the house would come vaguely alert as she passed them: dry mouths of laundry chute and chimney, long toothy rows of the bookshelves, the tool bench in the basement with the shadows of wrench, hammer, drill, plyers hanging on the wall. Sleeplessly, she would arrive again at the window and peer out.

Most of the time there was only the dark back yard–the Japanese Garden, as George Orson called it. A carefully laid stone path. A miniature wooden bridge over a trickle of a stream. A granite Kotoji lantern statue. The boughs of a miniature weeping cherry tree, which is where–as a person might expect–the crying seemed to be coming from.

One night, after the crying had been going on for a while, she had woken up and there was her mother leaning over her bed.

As if one ghost wasn’t enough. Now, here came her dead mother.

It wasn’t clear whether her mother meant to comfort her or warn her or simply lay down some ghostly guilt trip over having sex with her High School English teacher, but whatever the plans the mother’s ghost had dressed itself up pretty nicely for the task. It was wearing some kind of gauzy vintage number–a negligee or peignoir made of cotton batiste, with sweeping train and lace ruffles– perhaps Edwardian-style? Basically, the sort of thing her mother would have never actually worn. (In life, Lucy’s mother’s sleepwear tended to be over-sized t-shirts with pictures of cartoon characters on them.)

Nevertheless, here was the specter of her mom in silky white gown, long train of it blown back in some kind of mysterious breeze. Nevertheless, a long flowing ripple of dark hair. Nevertheless, her mother.

It took Lucy a moment to realize that her mother was trying to communicate. The mother was gesturing–perhaps using American Sign Language? And its mouth was moving, forming words, though no sound came out. Its eyes were fixed on Lucy and full of concern.

It took yet another moment for Lucy to realize that, actually, her mother was singing. The hand gestures went along with the words of a song, the fingers of the ghost’s hands working together, thumb to forefinger, forefinger to thumb, twisting in a kind of climbing gesture that registered in Lucy’s brain from the distant past, from early childhood:

The itsy bitsy spider climbs up the water spout;

That was what the gesture meant.

And then her mother’s fingers wiggled in a downward trickling motion.

Down came the rain and washed the spider out.

There was more to the song, Lucy knew, but the ghost of her mother seemed to be fixated on those two lines, those two gestures. Climbing up. Raining down. Climbing up. Raining down. Something mechanical about the repetition, as if her mother was a film projection, stuck on some kind of endless loop.

It was a pretty terrifying dream, actually.

It was the kind of dream that you couldn’t go to sleep afterwards. Even though George Orson was asleep quite sturdily in the bed beside her, it was very difficult to close her eyes again. She tried it once and almost immediately there was the feeling of that shape leaning over her. Hint of mother-breath. She could feel the knitting and signing of the fingers in the air above her.

And so she opened her eyes and there was that swimmy darkness that her brain couldn’t quite process. The door was closed, the window shade was pulled, so there wasn’t even moonlight or stars.

Suggestions of shapes floated across the surface of the dark like protozoa seen through a microscope, but there wasn’t too much for the optic mechanisms to actually hold onto.

She slid her hand along beneath the covers until she came up against the shoreline of George Orson’s body. His arm, his wrist, his pinkie finger, which she squeezed for a moment–until he let out a small petulant grunt.

If she had decided to wake him up, he would not have been mean to her. He might even have been wonderfully gentle and understanding, though really in a lot of ways that might have felt worse. She didn’t want to become the sort of woman who wakes up in the night with bad dreams, who carries her childish fear of the dark into adulthood, who sees ghosts and has premonitions and long auburn hair and grey, haunted eyes.

In some ways, however, she was afraid that this was in fact the very kind of girl that George Orson imagined her to be. Or at least he liked the idea of it, found it fun to fantasize her into such a role.

Like a heroine in a gothic romance, he had said more than once, including the day that they’d arrived here, when she saw this horrible dump for the first time. When he saw the horrified look on her face.

They had pulled up in the summer twilight and there was the tower of the abandoned motel looming over them, there may as well have been a full moon behind it and a hoot owl in a bare tree, and George Orson said: Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

It had taken her a moment to realize that the place was a lighthouse. Or rather the front of the place, the facade, was in the shape of a lighthouse. A large tube of cement, wide at the base and narrowing as it went upward, painted in white and red with a black cap at the very top, onto which was mounted a big security light, it looked like.

The Lighthouse Motel, said an unlit neon sign, and Lucy looked at the structure. Just a little past the lighthouse was the actual house, an ancient, ramshackle two-story house with a wrapped around porch and a turret–what did you call that–a tower? And dormers, corbelled chimneys, a gable roof.

“This is the house where you grew up?” she said, somewhat incredulously. “This is where we’re going to live?”

But George Orson only smiled. “Last night,” he intoned, “I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

As if it were a really good joke that she just hadn’t heard him the first time.

“Why do you keep saying that,” said Lucy crossly.

“It’s du Maurier,” George Orson said. “Rebecca?”

She looked at him. What was he talking about?

“There was a movie?” George Orson said. “With Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine?

She shook her head: who? Old timey actors, she guessed.

“It was a Hitchcock Movie,” George Orson said.

“I never heard of it,” she said, rather bluntly, maybe kind of snotty (she was, after all, more than a little freaked out.)

She walked around the front of the car and up toward the door that was inserted into the cement cone of the Lighthouse. Above the door it said: OFFICE, and there was an unlit tube of neon which said: No/Vacancy.

“Well, in any case,” George Orson said. Softly: subdued, nonplussed, as he liked to say. He opened the trunk and she looked over her shoulder as he extracted a suitcase. “We’re home.”

*

So–Home.

“A nice safe place to be if there’s some major catastrophe in the world,” George Orson had said once, and he’d only seemed to be partially joking.

He would say things like that and then he wouldn’t explain what he meant. Inscrutable was a word that he used sometimes, and she thought of it in the afternoon as she was sitting on the couch in the TV room with her head on a pillow, bored out of her mind.

From time to time, once or twice a week, a plane will go across the roof of the house and there will be a shudder–a sonic boom–and it will always frighten her, she never gets used to it.

Some major catastrophe.

The picture window in the TV room looked out on an alternate view of the back yard–the “Japanese Garden”–a different angle than the sliding door in the kitchen. She flipped through channels, but part of her attention is on the corner by the wall and bushes, where the shape of–what?–a deer? A young man? A woman in a nightgown?

Where a shape, a possibly imaginary shape, could possibly be seen as he/she/it disappeared.

And sometimes she will open her eyes and it will be late afternoon and George Orson is in the kitchen making dinner. She has been asleep in front of the television– this perhaps the only time of the day that she actually really feels tired, in the dusk, in the twilight, and outside snow has begun to fall solemnly onto the stream and the bridge and the cherry tree.

She can hear George Orson chopping something on the cutting board, a steady rhythm that makes her think of a distant woodpecker on some sort of nature trail. And for a moment, in a dream, she is a little girl walking along a trail in a woods.

It takes her a few moments to realize that the sound has stopped and then she wakes up. She lifts her head and George Orson is standing there in the doorway in his brick-red cook’s apron, holding the silver vegetable knife loosely at his side.

“Lucy?” George Orson says.

She studies his face for a moment. It is quite a handsome face for a man verging on fifty years old; he wears a little trimmed goatee and his hair is cropped close to his head. He weighs a hundred and sixty-five pounds, five foot ten inches tall, and he has clearly defined abdominal muscles and perfect teeth.

His eyes are a kind of stunning sea-green, a color so rare that at first she had assumed it was artificial, some kind of colored contacts.

He blinks as if he can feel her thinking about his eyes.

“Lucy? Are you okay?” he says.

Not really.

She is a young woman, not quite twenty. She is in a sweat suit with hair pulled into a lank pony tail. Her eyes are dull and there is a little acne around her mouth. She is no longer very pretty, if she ever was.

“You look like you’ve been hypnotized,” he says.

“I’m fine,” she says.

She pauses. No sound from the backyard.

George Orson gazes at her.

“I’m fine,” she says.