Their names were Pierre Hunter and Rebecca Lee, and they were seventeen years old, and he had come to see her in the hospital, because she had got pneumonia after running in a cross-country match on a rainy weekend.
She lay in the bed, holding the rails with pale and slender hands, and said it had to be dark in the room or she could not sleep.
“This is not darkness,” she said. “The light comes in all night.”
“I do. I’m talking about when they’re drawn.”
Pierre walked over and looked out the window.
The parking lot was lit by a grid of streetlamps, one of which stood just outside the glass. And the light it gave was white with a blue center.
“I see what you mean,” he said. “It’s sort of like arc welding.”
“You should be here later, when the lights are out in the room,” she said. “As bad as it is now, it’s worse then. And it makes a humming sound, which I don’t like either.”
“Yeah. I don’t hear that.”
She ran her fingers through her hair, which was short and brown with red streaks and sharp tufts like sideburns.
“Well,” she said, “it’s not doing it now.”
“Did you talk to somebody?”
“They gave me this.”
She opened a drawer in the night table and tossed him a black eye mask with an elastic strap.
“To wear on my head,” she said. “Do you believe it? Who could sleep with that on their eyes?”
“Probably some people can,” said Pierre. “Not this one.”
“Otherwise they wouldn’t make them.”
“Just tell them to shut it off, okay?”
When it was time to leave, Pierre went to see the nurse in charge of the floor. She nodded in a rapid tremor and looked beyond him, as if she had written off in advance whatever he might have to say.
“Rebecca is heavily medicated,” she said. “She doesn’t always know what’s going on. She’s sleeping. You don’t have to worry about that.”
“There’s this light.”
“Oh, yes. The light she talks about.”
“Well, I mean, there is a light.”
“Of course there is a light.”
“And it makes a noise.”
“There are lots of lights,” said the nurse. “It’s a hospital. I imagine we would have a few lights and noises. And it would be a very dark hospital indeed if we start shutting lights off for no more reason than this.”
They talked or argued for a while longer. Pierre figured that the nurse was the sort of person who always dealt with requests by saying they were impossible, even if they weren’t or she had no idea.
But on the next night, three lights in the parking lot did go out, including the one outside Rebecca’s window.
Sent to investigate, an electrician from the hospital found that a circuit breaker had tripped in a locked box on a ramp behind the Dumpsters.
This was a little odd but it happened from time to time, and the electrician reset the switch, and the lights came on, and he thought no more about it until the next night, when the same three lights were out again, and again he turned them on.
On the third night the electrician got a thermos of coffee and waited in his truck in the parking lot. Around ten o’clock he saw someone in a hooded sweatshirt leave the hospital, walk up the ramp, open the breaker box, and turn off the lights.
The electrician capped the thermos and stepped down from the truck. Cleverly, he did not call out or make noise, and he almost caught up with the tall hooded figure without a chase. But not quite. There was a chase, and the electrician was not a fast runner, and the one who put the lights out would have got away except that he made the mistake of veering into the hospital gardens, which were in a courtyard with no other way out. There the electrician caught him by the arm and pulled the hood back and saw that it was only a kid.
“Not so fast, you,” he said. “What’s your name?”
“Pierre Hunter,” said Pierre. “My girlfriend’s on the third floor. She can’t sleep because of the lights.”
“Let me tell you something,” said the electrician.
“Tampering with hospital electricity is not only illegal, it’s dangerous. You could cut somebody’s life support off. Did you ever think of that?”
“As if they would run the power for something like that through the parking lot,” said Pierre.
“Oh, you’re a wiring expert now.”
“And there’s a diagram inside the cover.”
“Yes, quite,” said the electrician. “I drew it. But tell me this. How are you opening the lock?”
“The combination’s on the back,” said Pierre.
They went to the breaker box, where the electrician saw that it was true.
“Kind of defeats the purpose,” he said.
He reset the circuit, but as chance would have it, while two of the lights came on and stayed on, the third flared and burned out.
“Is that the one?” said the electrician. “I think it is.”
“I guess she’ll sleep okay tonight.”
What Pierre had done could have been interpreted as a misguided attempt to override an uncaring bureaucracy, and the hospital knew this. Rebecca Lee was not the only one who had complained about the lights and the sound they made.
So instead of going to the police, the chief of security just told Pierre to stay out of the hospital. And the parking lot too.
One night during Pierre’s banishment from the hospital grounds, a friend of Rebecca’s named Carrie Sloan came to the Hunter place, above the town of Shale, where Pierre lived in a big house on three acres with his mother and father and their dog, a Labrador retriever named Monster.
Pierre had been out in the yard listening to the owls in the hemlocks, and now he and Carrie talked in the garage by the Sabre mowers.
“Listen, Rebecca’s breaking up with you,” said Carrie. “She wanted you to be the first to know.”
“Oh, good,” said Pierre.
“But you knew before I did.”
“Well, you’re among the first.”
“She could have called.”
“She can’t deal with the phone right now, Pierre.”
“Have somebody dial and hold the receiver.”
“Is the phone the real issue?” said Carrie Sloan. “Probably not, right? Of course it must be painful and everything.”
“It’s not because of the light.”
“No. She’s forgotten all about that. There is no why, Pierre. It is what it is.”
“What does that mean?”
“Think about it.”
“Of course it is what it is. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be.”
“Well, it’s a very popular thing to say.”
“I guess it means ‘Too damned bad, ain’t it.’”
“If that’s what you want it to mean,” she agreed. “Even before she got sick I couldn’t tell if she wanted to go with me anymore.”
“Well, now you know. She doesn’t.”
“Have her write me a letter.”
“I’ll pass along your request but I can’t make any promises.” Turning toward a white MGA in the garage, she asked, “Is that your car?”
“I can drive it,” said Pierre. “It’s not mine per se.”
They stood and looked at the two-seat convertible. The tense curve of the back fenders gave way to a long sweep of side panels, and the grill reclined sharply between eager round headlamps.
“Let’s go for a spin,” said Carrie.
“Okay, jump in.”
Pierre revved the MGA and bolted up to the power station that some called Frankenstein’s Playground and parked at the chain link gate. They hardly talked along the way because the ride took only a few minutes.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it,” said Pierre.
She laid her long arm on the door of the car and smiled crookedly, as if she had him all figured out despite not really caring if she figured him out or not.
She was famous for this smile in high school.
“Is this your idea of a funny place to take me?” she said.
“Sort of, yeah.”
“You’re mad at me for bearing the message.”
“It’s the way you bear it,” said Pierre. “You’re obviously getting into it.”
“So, is your heart broken or what? Are you crying? I hope you’re not crying.”
“Just on the inside.”
“Do you ever say anything serious?”
“Sometimes, sure,” Pierre admitted. “You know what the guy said to me when he caught me putting out the lights? ‘Yes, quite.’ Isn’t that strange? Could he be English?”
“I don’t know,” said Carrie. “Anyone could be English.”
“If they’re from England.”
“Yes, that would decide it.”
Carrie was captain of the poetry team, and she said that she had written a poem about Rebecca at the track meet where she caught pneumonia.
“Let’s hear it,” said Pierre.
Oak leaves ladle rain on the runners in the rain
And we wait for Rebecca in vain.
Like a horse hemmed in by the herd
She can’t get free to lead. Something isn’t right—it’s plain—
Because she excels on this terrain.
“That’s good,” said Pierre. “But what.”
“No, no, that’s all right. I hear some hesitation there.”
“Well, it kind of goes in and out as far as rhyming, but I guess you can do that.”
She nodded. “Not only can you, but I like to.”
Pierre took her back to the house and watched her drive away and then he went in.
The Hunter house was tall and creaky, with dusty vases on wooden tables and narrow stairways that climbed high into the shadows, and Pierre’s parents were in the living room watching the movie She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.
Monster, the black Lab, slept in flat profile on the faded red carpet.
Pierre felt his way into a black leather chair while watching the TV screen, and he considered telling them what Carrie Sloan had said, but then he thought that probably he wouldn’t.
“Why is this a classic?” said his mother. “I really want to know. It’s all about singing and transportation as far as I can tell.”
Pierre’s father picked up the newspaper and rattled it and put his glasses on and read. “It has ‘an elegiac quality of the Western vastness.’”
“That doesn’t even make sense.”
“Among John Wayne’s finest performances.”
“Maybe. But when I see him I don’t see anything but John Wayne.”
“That’s what a star is.”
“I think it’s better when the hero is sort of unassuming and you don’t know who it will be.”
Pierre put his legs up and watched the TV over his knees. “Tell me again why she wears the yellow ribbon.”
“She wears it for her lover in the U.S. Cavalry.”
“Look, Monster,” said Pierre’s father. “There’s a dog in John Wayne’s regiment.”
He talked to Monster all the time and often replied for her in a voice higher and denser than his own.
“What about a walk, girl?” he would say, holding the leash in his hands and looking down at the Lab’s deep and skeptical eyes.
“I don’t know. Looks pretty rainy.”
“Oh, you’ll love it. Come on.”
“Pretty fucking rainy out there.”
“I thought you were supposed to be a water dog.”
“Yeah, you know, that’s really overstated. I’m going to go lie down now.”
“No, let me put your leash on.”
“Go ahead, you won’t like it.”
“On you, I mean. . . .”
Pierre’s parents were eccentric and admired figures in Shale. They had arrived in town in the middle of their lives, having divorced other spouses and left other families in far-off Council Bluffs.
The scandal of this was apparent but never seemed to touch them somehow. They worked hard, paid attention to the world, and threw raucous card parties. They had Pierre at an age when many parents, themselves included, had children who were almost grown.
Pierre’s mother managed the insurance office in Shale and his father was an electrophysicist for an aerospace fabricator in Desmond City. No one understood what that amounted to, not even Pierre. His father could explain it, but only in the sort of language that the human mind tends to forget in an instant.
Once, when Pierre was fourteen, he and the Labrador pup Monster were nosing around in the basement and found a pair of ice skates hanging by frayed laces on a nail in the basement. The skates were well made and heavy but scuffed and scarred and brittle with age. He took them down and carried them upstairs.
He found his father in his study, where he was on the telephone with someone at the lab where he worked.
“Try shaking it,” he said. “You did, huh? Well, redo it then. . . . I don’t care. Just lay it on the table for the time being. . . . Don’t worry about that. It just doesn’t. That’s what everybody says. . . . Where does the capacitance come from? See what I mean. It’s got to come from somewhere.”
He looked at Pierre. “I’m on hold,” he said.
“Are these yours?” said Pierre.
“I’m surprised they’re still around. I used to play hockey, you know. Wasn’t too bad at it, either.”
“Can I have them?” said Pierre.
His father nodded. “Sure, take them.”
Into the phone he said, “Yeah. . . . No, no, no. Did you read chapter eight? I’m pretty sure it’s in there. . . . Well, read it again.”
Pierre tried to work up a stormy heart of romantic loss about breaking up with Rebecca. It gave him license to drink and brood with hard eyes, which he found interesting.
After he got hammered one night at a high place above Lens Lake called the Grade, his parents found him standing in the kitchen.
“What if there was a language with only one word in it?” he asked.
“It would be easy to learn,” said his mother.
“And with that word they would say everything, every time they spoke,” said Pierre.
“Yeah, that would be some language,” said his father.
“What are you on?”
“Just drinking,” said Pierre. “Just good old American drinking. You seem old tonight. You both seem old.”
This was honest, though a crummy thing to say, and he would have reason to regret it.
“You make us old,” said his mother. “The way you go around, Pierre, I wonder what will become of you.”
“You’re not even sad,” said his father. “Not really. You’re just trying to steal the spotlight of Rebecca’s illness.”
“It’s possible but not probable,” said Pierre.
His father drew a glass of water from the faucet and gave it to him. “Drink this,” he said. “Maybe you should have gone to boarding school. I don’t know if it’s been so good for you around here.”
“I wouldn’t mind if they had lacrosse,” said Pierre. “And I think most of them do.”
“You play football.”
“I like those lacrosse sticks, though.”
“This came for you,” said his mother.
It was a letter from Rebecca, which Pierre took up to his room to read in bed.
I can’t believe senior year beckons and with it our last chance to do the things that will last a lifetime in our memories. Whoever said every day is a gift from somewhere really had the right outlook. As Carrie told you, I want to be free to see other people in our last year at Shale-Midlothian High. Always remember how I wore your coat on the field trip to Effigy Mounds.
Pierre let the letter sail down to the floor. It sounded as if she were dating a class-ring salesman, though he was touched that she remembered wearing his coat. But they never did get back together, and the following year Rebecca moved to Arizona, where her father took a job with the city of Yuma, and Pierre never saw her again.
The years went by. Pierre went off to college in Ames, 175 miles south and west. It took him five years to finish. His parents died the winter of his third year. His mother’s death had been predicted for some time, but his father’s heart quit on him without warning three weeks later. His father was coming home from the hardware store in Shale and pulled over to the side of the road, where a mailwoman making her rounds found him in his car.
When Pierre looked back on that time it was as if he were seeing it through clouded glass. He moved like a sleepwalker among people in suits and dresses, people hovering in stairwells. That his parents were gone seemed impossible. He thought of them as still alive. The problem loomed but the solution was out of reach. It felt like there was still something he might do if only he could think of it.
A kind of nervous seizure came upon him as he waited for his father’s funeral to begin at the Church of the Four Corners. His hands shook and his breath grew short. He got up and sidled down the row of half siblings from Council Bluffs. He left the main part of the church and went up two stories to the bell tower and stood looking out over the half wall at the light on the snow-covered hills. He smoked a cigarette and put it out and then he cried pretty hard and for a long while. He had a blue handkerchief like the old farmers carried, and with it he wiped his face and blew his nose. The light bothered his eyes because it was so bright and thin and evidently unaware of what it was shining on.