If it was another day, another week, she wouldn’t have noticed a thing. How many times has she pulled into her townhouse driveway and gone inside without a backward glance at the city park? The park has been there for over thirty-eight years. Erica has lived there for four of those. There are lots of things that happen in her life, mostly unremarkable, and during her brief walks through overarching trees there are the usual motley crew of dogs doing their business and interacting, squirrels harassing one another, and people either avoiding eye contact or acting more friendly than is warranted. But it’s a place of graceful hills and shady spots to doze. There are those who come and stay a day or two, who haven’t another choice, perhaps.
Today is different. Erica’s home early. It happens she got fired from her assembly line supervisor job. Cutbacks and so on, she could tell by the twitch of her manager’s bottom lip that he was lying. She has been late too many times. He likes her and hates to give bad news but there is it. Last paycheck and out the door.
She pulls up and parks, then leans her head against the old sedan headrest, key still in the ignition. She is uncertain whether or not she even wants to enter her home. Freda, fourteen, will shriek at her and if her ex-husband stops by he’ll shake his head, make a sandwich and stare at her until she gets mad. He comes around every week or so to see Freda and give the girl some extra money. Sometimes daughter and father go to the park to catch up but usually Freda chats ten minutes, pockets the money and heads upstairs to her room. The music she plays is deafening until he calls up the stairwell to give it a break. He returns to Erica then and scowls, asks her to keep her daughter in check better, then leaves. He doesn’t like her most of the time; even though he still says “Love ya” as he leaves. She breathes again when he is gone. But she realizes he isn’t coming today, not unless he is summoned by Freda.
Her car is stifling. Erica rolls down the window, looks into the rearview mirror to check her raccoon eyes. She cried half the way home, then felt nothing. It was just a job for four and a half years, that’s all. It wasn’t a loss of limb or child, perish both thoughts. She adjusts the mirror and rubs at traces of mascara with a wet tissue and blinks more tears away. Then in the mirror she sees the picnic table and something on top of it, something odd. A lamp?
She turns off the car and gets out, walks across the city parking lot to the park and get a closer look. Scads of kids are running free at a birthday party and their mothers are letting them get dirty and sweaty, cake on lime green plates just half-eaten mounds. A frisky black Labrador jumps into the air to catch an orange flying saucer. Three teen-aged boys jump onto a distant picnic table, dancing on their own little stage, music heavy on rap. But this immediate area shows no signs of a recent picnic, betrays no clue of who was there last.
Erica stops a few feet from the lamp, looks into the trees to make sure no one is napping close by, somebody who might own it. There are jean shorts, too, with a bright design on the back pocket. Did someone do some shopping, then forget the items and go home? Or did they step away, soon to return?
She’s drawn to the lamp, wants to pick it up and examine it. It’s painted green and gold, has a quaint lampshade edged in amber plastic beads. It reminds her of her grandmother’s lamps, the kind in the summer house on the bay. This lamp would look perfect in her own butter yellow and white bedroom. Her current reading light is a leftover from college days, a long-armed metal beast of a light, its glare on a book page painful at the end of the day. But it isn’t hers so she backs away. No one seems to notice she is there, no one calls out for her to leave the lamp and jeans shorts alone. But she can’t steal things.
She lets out a long loose sigh, crosses the lot on sluggish wooden legs, returns to her front door. The earth can sink and swallow her up and she won’t cry out today. But if her daughter looks at her the wrong way it will feel like her skin if peeled away. She’s not feeling strong. Erica grabs a bunch of mailers and bills from the mailbox and unlocks the door, enters, sets down her purse by the couch.
Through the archway, Freda looks up from the kitchen island where she is possibly making cookies. It looks like a big silver bowl with the blender leaned into it. It’s somewhat surprising what Freda will do when not asked by an adult to do it.
“Mom, what’s up? You sick? I’m baking cookies, we’ll need more sugar.”
“I wish; I wouldn’t mind pneumonia, instead.”
“Huh? Crazy mommy!” Freda removes a beater and works off some batter with her tongue, then offers it to her mother. Seeing her face, she takes off the second beater and gives it to her like she is offering a treat to a skittish dog.
It’s a gift to hold that beater in her hands and Erica knows she will cry regardless of what happens next. She takes a lick and finds it overpowering, too rich, and sets it down on the island.
“I got fired. I don’t have my good job, anymore.”
“You what? Ha, good one!” Freda makes little mounds of chocolate chip dough on the cookie pan and checks the oven temperature.
“I did get fired. I don’t want to talk about it but it’s the truth. I’m going upstairs to my room. I’ll talk to you later, or next week.”
“Mom, you can’t possibly get fired! We have bills to pay! I just signed up for soccer camp!”
Her mother’s receding back looks delicate and bent like a fading flower stem. Freda drops the dough-laden spoon and is speechless but goes back to baking cookies. Of course her mom will find another job. She has always worked. But Freda feels afraid.
Erica slips off her pants, socks and shoes, climbs on her bed. Time fails to matter as she watches through her window. Wild children leave, new dogs come to walk their owners, the rapping trio tire of each other and separate. The lamp and jeans don’t budge. But she has forgotten what she should do in a crisis. Call her best friend who is a manager at a high-tech business? Call her mother, who is recovering from knee surgery? Or her ex, who may have to hand over more money to cover food and rent? No, no, no. Best to sit here and look out over the park, knees to chest, the light floral blanket around her. Tomorrow she will act more responsible.
She never liked factory work, barely agreed to be a supervisor. She didn’t want to be held responsible for all those people and their mistakes and the complaints. She took it when her ex was laid off his HVAC job for a few months, but even when he was back at work they agreed that two incomes were better. Except that before that she had been in college for a year while working fifteen hours at a bakery. Erica had determined it was time to finish her Bachelors degree, major in biology, maybe get her Masters if she could figure out a career. It had been the best thing she had done since having Freda. Even her ex gave it his seal of approval, at first. Then he didn’t have work.
Still, the factory scenario was supposed to be a stop-gap situation, not a long-term committment. Sort of like her relationship with him. He was there for twelve years, embedded in her life, like a habit hard to break until he changed it by leaving.
The baked cookie fragrance is creeping under her door. She can hear Freda banging around down there, maybe searching for a cooling rack. She didn’t give Erica that terrible look, just yelled at medium volume, so that’s not so bad.
Erica thinks things over and finds she is relieved she got fired even though it’s a stupid thing to feel when she has to make money. She takes off the warm blanket, flattens her knees; they offer up a sudden ache. It reminds her of the thirty-fourth birthday coming up. There has to be something else for her. Doesn’t there?
“Mom. I’m leaving cookies by your door. Come out, talk to me!”
The sun is setting. She can see it set afire the jade green treetops and darkening roofs. The air that passes into her room from the screened window is soft, almost silky on her bared legs. Erica gets up and then sits on her knees at the window, checking on the lamp. It looks like the jeans are gone. Just that little lamp now, abandoned on an edge of the picnic table.
Erica hears her grandmother’s voice, calling her to the summer house’s wide front porch, and closes her eyes.
“Come sit with me, Erica. The sun looks like a tangerine balloon that’s lost its air. Falling right into the bay at world’s end.”
Erica takes the rocker next to Gran’s and they rock, a hard worn rolling sound made on the wooden planks generating comfort to her. They are in concert, rocking, chatting. The water is liquid pester sparked by the sunset’s brilliance, undulating and shining. The beach will come later as youth gather to make a blazing beach fire, circle up and share whatever comes to mind or just poke at the flaming, smoking wood. Shoulder to shoulder. Weariness to happiness.
“Find what you were looking for earlier?” Gran asks.
“You mean, polliwogs and water skaters and stuff? I got a little frog, a beetle that’s funny. Sure. I always find them.”
“You do let them go?”
“Yes, Gran.” Erica crosses her legs on the big seat and slows down the rocking.
“I know you have to figure out how they work, but just pay attention. Be careful. That’s how you learn best. And ask questions.”
“I know. ‘Watch, listen, ask, learn, take action’. You always remind me.”
Gran laughs but it is more like a shusshshussh, a small breeze that escapes the night trees. She’s a big woman with a soft way but she seems so solid she will never break or wear down.
“Well, don’t forget, and Gran loves you even if you don’t get it all right. Just find more to learn and keep going.”
Darkness is falling, both on the porch of the summer house and, as Erica opens her eyes, outside her window.
Except for one spot. The picnic tables. She blinks, then widens her eyes to better peer into the night. It’s there. The lamp. And it is all aglow, as if someone plugged it into an unseen extension cord. Impossible! But it is a yellow light and nothing else but light in the woodsy edge of the emptied park.
Erica pulls on her pants and slippers and rushes downstairs, flying past Freda watching television, across the parking lot, straight toward that green and gold, now-flickering lamp. She reaches her hand out, takes steps closer and closer, then picks it up, and the light is gone.
It’s irrational, she knows this, but she holds the lamp close to her chest, demands that it ignite the dark, her darkness, so she can see, so she can claim it as her own little miracle, something to make things right again.
“Light up!” she says. “I saw you from my window, don’t prove me a fool, light up again!”
“Hey, what’s up? You talking to my lamp?” A male voice from somewhere close by. Laughter like a dagger, sharp and quick.
Erica puts it back on the table. “I’m sorry. I thought–.” She turns to go, fear replacing her need to command the lamp.
A young man emerges from behind a tree, slinks closer. “I got it for somebody but she don’t want it now. Kept the jeans shorts.”
“Oh, I see.” Erica peers at him, this boy about her daughter’s age with shaggy blond hair straggling from under a baseball cap, hands stuck in his pants pockets. “You’re going to toss it out, then?”
“I was thinking of selling it for a few bucks. Ten. But I seen you come for it and give it more thought.”
“Did you see it, uh, well, do anything?”
He looks at her quizzically, takes off his cap, resettles it. “You mean, did I see some sort of funny light? Maybe. But it wasn’t this, the lamp you was talking to!”
Erica picks it up again. “I’ll take it, then. You need the cash?”
The boy considered it with one eye closed, then her. “I found it on a curb. Then it found you. That’s how it goes. Hope it works.”
He folds into thick darkness before she can say another word. She searches for him a last time, then runs with treasure held close. The front door swings open.
“Mom! What the heck are you doing out there? I’m starving.”
Erica slows down as she comes face-to-face with Freda. “Okay, let’s do take-out Thai. After this, it’s likely cereal and peanut butter sandwiches. I’m going back to college.”
“Really? And what is you found out there?”
Erica puts her free arm around Freda’s shoulders, then holds out the homely possession. “My new bedside lamp.” She hugged her close, then let her go. “From my window I saw a light shine out there, but it was only Gran.”