The lamp at the front of the house, in the atrium, by the window, stays on. Another tract home in an upscale subdivision, somewhere in the mush of Middle America sprawl. In this house the lamp stays on. To ward off potential crime, to give the impression that someone is home, even when they are. This is the reason given. Shut the garage door, set the sprinkler system, pick up the mail, check the lamp.
But a hooded figure emerges from the void, in most versions driving a pickup truck, undersized and missing its tailgate. He turns into your neighborhood, coasting past rows of affluent households. He does not think like you, he is not one of us, he is full of rage. He sees your house. He stops. He likes it (even though it’s pretty average for this neighborhood, in terms of size and landscaping, as far as curb appeal goes). He chooses you, your family, your stuff.
Wants to smash your storm windows, stain your Moroccan carpet, the one you steam–cleaned last Tuesday. He’ll take your heirlooms. Bust your couch. He’ll move from room to room, smothering your children as they sleep.
This guy, probably a white supremacist or an escaped convict or a vessel of Lucifer himself, he’s out there. During the daytime, as your granite countertops gleam in the sunlight of another enchanted morning, these things don’t happen to you. They happen to someone else. But when sunlight is gone, for fleeting moments as you turn off the bedside light, you question: is he out there, he’s out there. He could be.
From where could such an inhuman force emerge, bent on your destruction? Those schools on the North side, where students pass through metal detectors as they enter in the morning, feed upon the state’s frozen lunches of coagulated meats, pregnancies are routine, principals wear Kevlar: this guy’s from there. And he dropped out too, in the tenth grade. Parents didn’t care because they’re on drugs. He worked a few jobs, graveyard shifts at gas stations, grocery stores, enough nights that by twenty he had the crazy eyes. Wears a hooded sweatshirt, always the same one, it’s red, he’s never washed it.
This derelict, this dreg of humanity—he should’ve just stayed quiet and stayed on his side of the city where if you need help there are churches and charities and you can always try going back to school, get a degree and become an upstanding citizen, not some nobody who wants to destroy everything we’ve worked for—he scopes out your neighborhood. These days, he lives to observe the quotidian traffic patterns of the upper–middle class. Acuras, Audis, BMWs that pull out at 7:30; vans full of maids, pool–guy–trucks until mid–afternoon; around 6, a triumphal procession of returning breadwinners; most houses dark by 11. This guy knows. He takes notes.
And after watching for weeks, months, he picks you. Your house. Your life.
And this is why you leave the light on. He won’t come in if he knows you’re home or awake; he wouldn’t dare.
Herman leaves the light on. It’s a stainless steel floor lamp with a 100–Watt incandescent bulb, in the atrium, by the window. It pairs well with the décor, not so conspicuous as to suggest its true purpose. Just a lamp, turned on, because I’m home. Herman’s home.
Herman has a daughter, Sandy. She was once demure, submissive, piano and tennis lessons twice a week, Hebrew school. Now she’s in high school. A new school. It’s progressive.
The first day of her freshman year, at dinner, she talks about her favorite class, Ecology. She’s making friends. A few weeks later she joins the Environmental Awareness Club. On Saturdays she goes to public parks to pick up trash. They want to make a sculpture from plastic bags and bottles, the school’s promised to display this trash–art on its front lawn.
Oh sweetie, that’s great, oh my little girl, says Herman’s wife. Oh I’m so proud, this community could use more kids like you. Well, good, says Herman, I pay enough for you to go there. Within a month, Herman’s Sandy has the club over to the house for a dinner, for which Sandy and her mother spend a day collecting ingredients at local farms.
Oh I’m so happy Sandy is finding her passion in life, says Herman’s wife, in bed, we’ve raised her to be so responsible, so loving, and oh, I don’t like to pressure her about this but it’ll look great on her resume when she applies to college. Mm? Yeah, it will, says Herman, looking up from tax documents, a glass of scotch. Herman leaves the bed. He goes to the garage, programs his sprinkler system to activate at sunrise. He locks the back door. He unlocks and relocks the front door, shakes its knob. It’ll hold. He sets his home alarm system, turns on the lamp. He returns to the bedroom. He watches his wife snore.
A few days later, Herman is in his office. He prefers to spend his time there with his cedar doors closed. But today, he leaves them open.
Herman hums a tune about Herman. Last month he was made partner at his firm. Two weeks ago he closed a deal with a German energy company. Multi–million. Hum hum. Herman the Success. Take that Dad. Hum hum hum.
A shadow on his wood paneling. He looks up and Sandy stands at the threshold of the cedar frame. I need to ask you about something Daddy, she says. Herman sweeps his reading glasses off his face, he’s a busy man. Yes Honey? Dad, it’s about the lamp, the one you’ve been leaving on at night, by the door. Does that lamp stay on all night, every night? Yes Honey it does. Daddy please can we start turning that lamp off? It’s a waste. Do you know how much energy these light bulbs use? Daddy, if anyone in the Environmental Awareness Club knew I’d be so ashamed.
Herman rubs his chin, tapping his fingers on his desk. Hmm. Thoughtful deliberation. Considering your opinion. Hmmm. No, we can’t. Sorry Honey. We can’t.
Sandy still talking talking talking still in the doorway. Daddy this is really important to me Dad please. Herman looks up at her, her face longer than he remembers, darker, crueler. He remembers the face from the photo on his desk, the day she graduated the 8th grade. After lunch he told her to get in the car and they went to the shopping mall where he bought her $800 of new clothing, she glowing up at him as they hurried from store to store, weaving through the crowd. He recalls this day and waxes upon its affectionate exchanges, its proof of his paternal accomplishment.
But he sees this face at his cedar doors, and feels tired. His limbs heavy. Sandy is shaking fists and talking gasping her forehead turning red, Daddy it’s such a huge waste of energy soon we’ll all—
Boom. His eyes lose focus. Rage. An octave above his normal pitch, cutting her off, he cringes.
Honey there’s a reason I leave that lamp on.
Beads of sweat bubble on his receding hairline.
You never know what could happen in this day and age. I keep it on so no one will try to break in.
I do it to protect us, everything we have.
Clenching a magazine, through gritted teeth, ink staining his hands.
The lamp stays on.
He is still. The room pounding with his heart. Panting and pulsing. Okay, Dad, says Sandy. She leaves. He puts his glasses back on, but he’s been squeezing them and the right lens has popped out and fallen to the floor somewhere. He calls her, Sandy can you come here, hey, Honey, please come here. She doesn’t come, no one does.
The lamp stays on. He thought that Sandy might challenge him and stay up into early hours of the morning, waiting until he goes to sleep, switch it off. Or God forbid tell her mother. But she doesn’t bring it up again.
Weeks after, Herman is home alone. His wife is away for her 50th birthday experiencing the best cosmetic surgical residency in North America, a surprise gift. Herman wouldn’t shell out for Switzerland. He wears a robe and slippers. He anticipates no disturbances. Sandy is out. At a friend’s.
It is 10. Herman has already smoked a cigar, swallowed two gin and tonics, exhausted both sides of his prized Keith Jarrett at the Fillmore record. He sinks into the couch in his office, memory–foam. He pours another gin and tonic, sips. Might as well. Pah pah pah. Ahh.
This gulp of bubbles energizes him. This body can no longer contain him. He jumps up and watches the imprint of his behind absorbed into the couch. He paces. He hurries into the atrium. His wife calls it a vestibule, but it’s an atrium. Not a fucking vestibule. Oh–I’m–just–old–fashioned–I–guess, she says. I’d like to punch her in the mouth. The lamp by the front window is on.
Looking out the front window he sees car lights in motion, narrowing. He cups his hand around his eyes, leans against the window. Lights bursting off his brick mailbox down by the curb, narrowing as they move down the road, approaching his house. The car passing, a large white SUV. He watches it pass, hands still cupped, the comfortable cool window sticking to his forehead. He’ll stay here for a bit. Mmm. Comfortable, this chilly silence.
Herman waits. His breath fogs the window, hahh, sahhh. My lovely silence. The glass sucks heat from his now numb forehead.
Then, more car lights. More traffic than usual tonight. Another growl, a roar, moving toward his curb, again, louder than the last, this one ripping, screaming as it flies down the road. The white SUV. It stops, this time a full stop. It sits, waits, watching. Herman is still.
The silence of its presence is a fire gnawing at Herman’s limbs. His ears ring. Then, finally; the car screams again. It zooms up the street, the roar still present in the distance. It’s him. The guy. It’s time.
Herman time. Herman’s curb, Herman’s house, Herman Street.
Herman rushes into his office, grasping for what is big, what is sharp: a hooked, cast–iron poker for a fireplace.
Then, to the garage, to the Lexus. He’s going to find this fucker. Gonna hunt you down. Gonna send you a love letter, straight from Herman. Herman revs the engine. The garage spins. He peels out of the driveway, shoots into the darkness. He forgets to close the garage. The back door is unlocked. The lamp by the front window is on. Herman’s coming. You fuck.