The Horse Lamp
Jarrod had been called to the girl’s house to fix her satellite dish, but when he got to the peeling blue rental and walked around its weedy perimeter, he saw that the girl didn’t have a satellite dish. She had cable. Jarrod tried to explain the difference between the two services while the girl stood barefoot on the stoop wearing a see-through tank top and a pair of minuscule cut-offs. Jarrod noticed that the girl had dirty feet—filthy, really—and that her toenails were painted the color of mustard. Both of her pinkie toes were curled in for warmth against the other toes like two cold grubs. While Jarrod talked, he imagined the girl shoeless at the drugstore, standing in the nail polish aisle for a while before stealing a bottle of yellow polish when no one was looking. He saw the girl walk right past the cashier, carefree and careless, her brown feet slapping the tile. For a good portion of his satellite-and-cable explanation, Jarrod looked at the girl’s feet and imagined her shoplifting. He did this to avoid looking her in the eye. Every time he looked up, there the girl was, staring at him hard and brave and dumb, chewing slow on a wad of gum. It made Jarrod feel dizzy to look at her head-on. It made him feel like he might keel over in the red landscape gravel that was scattered around the tiny house.
“What I’m getting at,” Jarrod finally said, “is that I can’t fix your satellite dish, because you got no satellite dish. And I’m not allowed to fix the cable seeing how I don’t even work for the cable company.”
The girl twisted a lock of dry copper hair around one of her fingers until her finger turned lilac. “Aw, now,” she said. “Ain’t fixing a TV just fixing a TV? Whatever happened to being a gentleman?” She winked at Jarrod and switched her wad of gum from one cheek to the other. Jarrod could see her flat breasts through the white tank top. They looked like two eggs in a skillet and he thought he might lose consciousness. “I’m sure you can figure out how to fix it,” the girl exhaled, “I really need my TV because TV is my whole life.”
Jarrod looked over his shoulder. He looked at the white company van parked on the street. There was a picture of a big red satellite painted on the van. The driver’s side window was half down but it didn’t look like it was going to rain. “All right,” Jarrod said. “But real quick or else I might get fired.”
Inside the rental house, a giant dog with clouded eyes got up on all fours with some struggle when Jarrod entered. It came over to Jarrod and nosed around his crotch and thumped its heavy tail against the wall in apparent approval.
“Get the fuck off the nice man, Oreo,” the girl said. “Don’t worry about Oreo. He’s my stupid roommate’s stupid dog. He doesn’t bite or nothing. He just bothers the living shit out of everyone.” The girl kicked laundry and magazines out of the way with a dirty foot. “You want something to drink?” she asked. “I got the blue Gatorade. The light blue kind. And I got tap water and milk, but I don’t think the milk’s any good any more.”
When the girl bent over to push some old newspapers out of their path, Jarrod could see high up where the girl’s legs changed from legs to ass. Her skin went from smooth and tan to white and dimpled; there was nothing gradual about it. It was like two countries on top of each other, ice cream on a cone. “I’m not thirsty,” Jarrod said. “But you better show me that TV. I can’t take all day here.”
“All right,” the girl said. “But it ain’t much.”
The girl took Jarrod down a banged-up narrow hall. She opened a door at the end of it and a burst of air-conditioned air hit Jarrod in the face. The room was as dark as midnight and it smelled like fruit punch. The girl clicked on a little lamp and it flickered on to reveal a mattress on the floor covered in clothes. The walls were sloppy-painted the color of bubblegum. In the corner an outdated television sat on a milk crate. It had rabbit-ear antennae wrapped in aluminum foil.
“I’m a mess,” the girl said. “Always will be.”
Jarrod waded through towels and clothes. He went to the television and held one of the antennae ears in his hand. “You have cable and you don’t even have this hooked up to cable,” he said. “This thing is just plugged into the wall like a radio.”
The girl gave a sheepish smile and shrugged. “Aw, all right,” she said, “I’m busted.”
Jarrod let go of the antennae and scowled.
“See now. I didn’t call for no repairman,” the girl said. “I’m just laying an egg is all.”
Jarrod looked at the girl the way she’d looked at him when he had tried to explain the difference between satellite and cable.
“Ovulation,” the girl said. “This is the week in the month I’m most likely to get pregnant and I need someone to get me pregnant.”
“Ohhh no,” Jarrod said, suddenly enlightened. He went to step over the clothes, to go back the way he’d come, but Oreo was standing right in the way he needed to go, slapping his big tail against a dresser missing most of its drawers. “I ain’t getting anybody pregnant. No ma’am, no sir.”
The girl backed up against her bedroom door and by the time Jarrod got to her, she had her spine pressed up against the doorknob. “The Robinsons’ baby,” she said fast. “I let it drown in the ocean.” Jarrod went to reach behind the girl and she lifted up a knee. “I was their babysitter last summer and I let go of the baby and it drowned.” The girl choked for a second, like she might cry. “They never found it neither. Thanks to me, their baby wasn’t only killed but lost, too.” Jarrod looked at the girl’s raised knee. He didn’t think she could do him much harm. “They’re pretty bad off now, the Robinsons are. Who wouldn’t be with a baby at the bottom of the ocean? But I’m going to get pregnant and have them a baby and put the baby on their porch in a laundry basket and then leave town for good.”
Jarrod put one hand on the girl’s knee and reached behind her with his other for the doorknob. He’d get rough with her if he had to. He thought about how he could move her. He could shove her to the side and run. He could push her to the floor. He could do that and get free and back to the van, but before Jarrod could decide exactly how, the girl reached out and clicked off the little lamp and the room went midnight again. Jarrod felt the girl’s hands, cold and gentle, one on his knee and one on his forearm. “Don’t worry,” she said softly, “I don’t have anything you can catch. I just got me a fresh egg and it’s not going to stay fresh long.”
The girl took Jarrod’s hand and put it up the back up her shorts where the two countries met and before he knew it Jarrod was doing what he hadn’t planned on doing. He was stumbling with her over the sea of laundry and over to the mattress on the floor. Once they were down, the girl’s tank top went off and Jarrod’s hands were on her flat skillet chest. The room was cold and the girl was cold, so Jarrod put as much of himself onto her and into her as he could. The girl made little mouse-like squeaks. Jarrod heard himself breathe like he was being chased. He felt himself leave his body and come back into it, leave his body and come back into it. Up close, the girl smelled like cherries, and with his eyes closed, Jarrod couldn’t help but imagine that all that was in him was going into the girl to make something that would solve a terrible problem.
When it was over, Jarrod opened his eyes and the girl clicked on another little lamp by the mattress on the floor. This lamp was shaped like a horse and where the lamp part rose out of the horse, right where a saddle might be, Jarrod imagined himself on the horse’s back and the girl behind him, her arms around his waist. He suddenly saw himself as important. On the other side of the mattress, the girl stayed on her back and brought her knees to her chest.
“This keeps the swimmers in,” she said matter-of-factly. “It gives them a chance to find the egg.”
Jarrod noticed that the girl’s top two teeth were crooked and as she concentrated on her position they poked out over her bottom lip. For a second, Jarrod wanted to touch her face, gentle, but then a bolt of fear shot through him and he squeezed his eyes together.
“You need to come back tomorrow,” she said. “We should do what we just did for at least five days in a row.” Jarrod didn’t know what to say to that. He felt again as if he might faint. He opened his eyes forcefully and got up from the mattress and put on his pants. He felt weak, like the time he’d had the flu as a boy. Like the time he’d given blood in high school. “You hear me?” the girl said. “Five more days.”
Jarrod didn’t answer. He went down the narrow hall and out to the van. Outside, the world was hot and blinding and he could hardly breathe. When he sat down behind the wheel, he could see a faint yellow dust all over the dashboard where pollen had settled while he and the girl had been in the dark, doing what they’d done.
Jarrod made a promise to himself that he wouldn’t go back to the girl. He spent the whole next day on roofs, adjusting satellites for better reception. He explained to housewives and shut-ins and blank, unemployed men how warm weather affected the satellites. He told them how when roofs got hot, the pads that the satellites sat on got soft. How the satellites shifted on the shingles and quit working the way they were meant to work. He spent the day listening to himself talk to people who didn’t care what he said, while he heard, in far a corner of his mind, the girl squeaking like a mouse. Every so often, Jarrod could smell fruit punch in his nose. He’d just be sitting on a roof, sweating and thinking of the girl’s cold, dark room when all of sudden it was cherries, everywhere. It happened enough that by the time Jarrod got off work at six he couldn’t think straight. He couldn’t think of anything to do other than what he had promised himself he wouldn’t.
“You been swimming?” the girl asked when he showed up on the stoop. Her feet were still filthy, but this time her toes were painted the color of the sky. She had on the same shorts it seemed, but a different thin tank top, this one striped that put her small breasts in jail.
“Might as well been,” Jarrod said. “The roofs out there are hot.”
“I imagine,” the girl said like she wasn’t imagining it at all. “Well come on in. I was about to give up on you.”
Jarrod followed the girl inside the house and, on cue, the big dog with the cloudy eyes got up with some struggle and came over to Jarrod and nosed his crotch and thumped his tail against the wall.
“Oreo likes you more than he likes my roommate,” the girl said kicking more things out of the way with her filthy feet. “Dogs can smell liars, you know. And that’s what his owner is—a big fat one.”
Jarrod kept quiet and followed the girl down the narrow hall. When she opened her bedroom door and the darkness and coldness and smell of fruit punch washed over him like a wave, Jarrod felt relieved. There was some part of him that had been afraid it would be different than the day before, but it was like a tape rewound and played again—a song he was starting to know the words to. Inside, the girl clicked on the first lamp on the dresser and Jarrod saw the TV wrapped in foil and the sloppy pink walls. “Still a mess,” the girl said without apology. “Always will be.” Then she clicked off the first lamp and took Jarrod by the hand and led him over to the mattress and down they went as they had before. In the cold dark, the girl made the same noises as before and Jarrod breathed like he was being chased and when it was all over, the girl clicked on the little horse lamp by the mattress and brought her knees to her chest and poked her two crooked front teeth out over her bottom lip. After some time, she spoke.
“I’m gonna tell you something I never told anyone before, but I didn’t drop the Robinsons’ baby on accident. I let go of her on purpose.”
Jarrod squeezed his eyes shut until the black behind his eyes turned to violet. In his mind, he saw the horse from the horse lamp. He saw himself and the girl on the shiny orange horse and the girl’s arms were wrapped around his waist. Behind his tight eyes, he and the girl were riding under a white sky across a desert of white sand. The girl was pregnant. A baby—their baby—grew inside her and pushed against Jarrod’s back.
“I was just out there waist-deep in the ocean with the baby and I was holding her under the armpits and dipping her down into the water. And every time I went and dipped her down in the cold water, the baby’s face got all big and scared.” The girl paused to make a sound, and Jarrod guessed she was imitating the baby’s expression. “The way that baby made her face look just did something to me. It made me not like her. She just had this perfect world lined up for herself with her perfect mother and her perfect father and that face of hers just made me feel like the worst thing she was ever gonna know was cold water.” The girl sighed. “I didn’t like that. I knew she would grow up to be no good to anybody if her only trouble was cold water. So I let go of her for a minute to see what would happen and she got away from me fast. The wave came and I let go and then she was gone.”
The girl didn’t say anything for a while. In Jarrod’s mind, the horse galloped across the white sand noiselessly and without effort. The desert was neither hot nor cold and the more Jarrod rode the horse toward the horizon, it occurred to him that they weren’t in the desert at all. They were at the bottom of the ocean—a drained one.
“The worst was when I had to turn around from where I was at to face the baby’s parents back on the beach. I just turned and held up my empty hands and before long the helicopters came and the lifeguards came and everybody lined up on the beach waiting like the queen was coming in on a boat.” The girl let a little whistle escape through her crooked teeth. “The baby’s mother was something else. She turned into a monster right then and there in front of everyone. She crawled back and forth on the sand like a dog. She even foamed at the mouth.”
The orange horse slowed to a trot and Jarrod got off and the girl stayed on. Jarrod grabbed the horse’s reins and brought the horse to a walk. He led the horse to a long, white dune and at the top of it Jarrod and the girl looked out over the seafloor. There were bleached white skeletal shipwrecks and bi-planes, there were white arching temple bones of blue whales, there were giant white conch shells and lost white shipping containers, tipped on their sides to spill white, flaking rubbish. There were old fishing masts like fossilized spines and anchors made of talc and off to the side there was the baby—a white plaster garden cherub covered in barnacles. Jarrod pointed to it and the girl nodded and Jarrod walked the horse out to the baby. When Jarrod got to it, he touched it with his toe and the baby crumbled into a pile of powder that the breeze picked up and scattered like ashes.
“Thank you,” the girl whispered.
Jarrod walked back to the horse and the girl and he put his head against the girl’s warm stomach. She put her hand on the back of his head and ran her fingers through his hair.
“I’ve missed a lot of sleep thinking about what happened to that baby,” the girl said. “I’ve had me some terrible dreams. That the baby’s in a fishing net somewhere getting slapped by big silver fish. Or that it’s just bobbing around like a plastic doll. Sometimes I stay in the tub too long and my feet wrinkle up all soft and white and I imagine the baby maybe just melted away. Like tissue paper left out in the rain.”
Jarrod opened his eyes. He turned to look at the girl.
“There it is!” she said with a sudden smile. “I felt it take inside! I think we made a baby!” She hugged her knees closer and Jarrod reached out gently to her face. “You don’t have to come back no more. We did what we set out to do.”
Jarrod felt something in him give way just as the sand on the dune had as the horse descended. A whole shelf of something broke loose in him and he couldn’t gather it back up. “We better make sure,” he said. “I’ll come back again.”
The girl let her knees down and turned off the horse lamp. “That ain’t necessary,” she said. “Now I’m going to take a nap and let the baby cook.”
“What’s your name?” Jarrod asked in the cold dark.
“Marie,” the girl said.
Jarrod rose and dressed in the darkness. He stood for a while in the cold room and listened to the girl breathe. Then he let himself out of the house.
That night, the moonlight came through Jarrod’s window as bright as sunlight. He couldn’t sleep, so he got up and found a hammer and some nails and nailed up a quilt over his window. But still, the light came in around the corners, so Jarrod rose a second time and found a roll of duct tape, and he taped the quilt to the wall as best he could. But still, the light found a way in through the quilt’s stitching. Jarrod lay on his back and squeezed his eyes closed. He and the girl were on the orange horse, but the horse had turned from a real horse back into a ceramic one and he and the girl were sliding, sliding off its slick back.
In the morning, Jarrod went to his first service call. While he adjusted the satellite, he saw himself pulling weeds from the perimeter of the girl’s rental. He saw himself kneeling at the girl’s feet, painting her toes the same tangerine color of the horse lamp. After Jarrod got the satellite working, he called in sick for the rest of the day and drove himself to the girl’s house. On the stoop, he felt weak and out-of-sorts from the heat and lack of sleep, but he knocked and knocked until a long haired guy, shirtless and sleepy-eyed, opened the door.
“You better not be selling anything,” the guy said. “I got enough cookies and god.” Behind the guy, Oreo rose with some struggle. He staggered to the door and peeked through the guy’s knees and thumped his tail when he saw Jarrod.
“I’m friends with your roommate,” Jarrod said. “I came to talk to her.”
“Penny’s not here,” he said. “She’s gone.”
“I’m not looking for Penny,” Jarrod said. “I’m looking for Marie.”
The guy raised one foot and bent his knee and pushed backward on Oreo’s snout with his heel. “No Marie lives here,” he said. “You got the wrong place.”
Jarrod said nothing. He watched Oreo retreat from the foyer and lie down, hard and fast like he’d been shot. “She had red hair,” Jarrod finally said. “Crooked teeth.”
The guy nodded. “That’s Penny,” he said. “The liar. You can come in and see for yourself that she ain’t here.”
The guy opened the door and motioned inside for Jarrod to come in. Oreo got up in pained loyalty and nosed Jarrod in the crotch. “She even left her goddamn dog,” the guy said. “What am I going to do with a goddam dog?”
Jarrod felt more sand fall away from the dune inside him. Shelf after shelf broke free. He went down the long, narrow hall with the guy and the dog at his heels. When he got to the door, he paused with his hand on the plastic gold doorknob and squeezed his eyes shut and he saw nothing.
“Go on,” the guy said. “I don’t have all day.” Jarrod took a deep breath and turned the knob. “I mean, I do have all day,” the guy said. “But this ain’t how I planned on spending it.”
Inside, the room was as bright as a cathedral. The sun poured in the single window and the walls were so drenched in light they didn’t even look pink. On the floor, the mattress was bare. The clothes were gone and the towels were gone and the foil-wrapped TV was gone. All that remained was the little horse lamp and Jarrod went over to it and kneeled.
“Penny was a mess,” the guy said. “Always will be.”
Jarrod clicked the lamp on and clicked the lamp off and in the bright white of the day, he couldn’t tell a difference between the two. He unplugged the lamp and wrapped the cord around it and stood.
“Take it,” the guy said. “It’s yours.”
Jarrod clutched the lamp to his chest and pushed past the guy and past the thumping dog and ran out into the day. In the van, he sat for a long while panting, working to catch his breath, working to convince himself that he didn’t have a problem, but that he’d solved one. On the dashboard, more pollen had collected like blown sand. When he could finally breathe normally, Jarrod took the horse lamp off his lap and placed it next to him on the bench seat. He put it right in the middle, like a child placed between two people who had made it.