A neighbor described my great-grandfather, Wash Sailors, driving a horse-drawn wagon up the steep hill to the Barada cemetery with a wooden casket in the back containing the body of his twenty-year-old son, Ben, who had died at Fort Deming, New Mexico, in the great flu epidemic of 1918. Wash met the train by himself. So many soldiers were dying, the Army didn’t have enough men to send escorts with bodies.
As a boy, I slept with a night light. So did my friends. Standard was a plastic cylinder mounted on a metal base and painted with a nature scene. Inside, an electric bulb burned beneath a smaller cylinder painted with stripes. Heat from the bulb rose through louvres atop the inside cylinder, making it rotate on a spindle. This beamed the nature scene around a room as if it were alive. My light was a forest fire. Lying in bed at night, with the house gone dark, my room looked flame-licked. Watching walls dance with flickering red light reminded me of gazing into a friendly fireplace. Some kids preferred a lamp featuring Niagara Falls, which turned a room blue with rushing water. But I liked the forest fire. It frightened my demons into remaining in the closet, or under the bed, or outside the window. I had to abandon the night light when I hit junior high (I couldn’t let people think I was some punk afraid of the dark). So I improvised. I hung a reading lamp from my bed’s headboard and each night before sleep I rotated the lamp’s metal shade below its bulb to shield my eyes and dimmed the upward glow by balancing a comic book across it. This worked well unless I forgot to rotate comics. Heat-dried Blackhawks and Batmans began to smolder after a couple of nights. In high school, I moved to a house where a street lamp beamed from a telephone pole outside my window. It kept most demons at bay. All these years later, my wife can’t stand light as she tries to sleep and no street lamp gleams nearby, so I bed down in the dark. On the blackest of nights, watching shadows shift and shimmer, I long for those old walls of fire to drive my demons away.
I saw her with him only once, on a street corner at midnight. I was standing in the shadows of a concrete parking garage across the street. Stalking, I suppose.
…jogging up Champs Elysees toward the Arch de Triomphe with the pavement wet from last night’s dew and dawn light brilliant on the storefront windows.
I kept seeing
images of the girl—dark hair, freckles, small smile—from
a framed photo
he’d months ago snatched off his desk, buried
in his closet.
I kept seeing images of a wrecked Chevy, of two
lying by the side of an asphalt road. I tried sleep, fidgeted
for a dark hour,
gave up. I crossed the campus to a friend’s dorm, asked
to stay the night
on his floor. He gave me a blanket and a pillow.
We left the light on.
It was hot, and the high desert stretched away brown and dusty from the restaurant’s asphalt parking lot. I felt precariously balanced on the edge of civilization, the touchpoint between A&W hamburgers and endless miles of sagebrush and dry Wyoming dirt.