Michael Howerton

Lights Out

The June night crackles with lightning storms. Hot rain cushions the glare from streetlights and the neighbors sit on the front steps, smoking and watching their dogs shit on the warm wet concrete. Noises crack and hum in the humidity. The air carries the rumble of the subway to my window, the wheels like a faraway storm rushing closer, the elevated station shaking and shouting. Windows are open down the street and heads come and go in the lighted space: yelling, explaining, watching, kissing; other windows closed for the night. Bodies appear and disappear behind curtains, eating late dinners without shirts, loose flesh exposed to the dog walkers hurrying along then street in the rain, neighbors across the alley, strangers passing on the subway. No one picks up the shit, and it melts into loose sludge across the sidewalk. The foul odor mixes the garbage stink in the humid night, rotten from the hot day, many days now, without a pick-up, clouding the street corners with sweet, pungent rot. Fresh urine bakes into the pavement. Lightning comes quickly with a rat-tat-tat and then all goes black. The sky turns on, and the buildings go black; trees regain sinuous shape; people are uncovered.

I listen to the subway in the bedroom, in the center of the floor, where I collapsed minutes ago and have regained consciousness, although I have not yet moved. The cold floorboards, dusty but solid, grab me and keep me. The sky explodes out the window, four feet above me, and then nothing, no thunder, just silence, and the apartment recovers the dull gray hue from the light across the street. I wait, and when ready, I raise myself against a chair and then pull myself into it. I’m hot and sweating. I pull off my shirt and shiver. The noxious incense seeps in from the apartment below, making me want to puke. The air is terrible, rancid. The phone is within reach, thankfully, because my knees tremble when it rings.


“It’s me,” he says, his voice brings me back whole.

“I didn’t know if you’d be home.”

“I’m here,” I say, still woozy. I try not to slur my words, but my tongue feels too large.

Outside, the storm winds crash through the trees and throw water through the open window, pinpricks on my bare chest.

“Are you okay, Harry?” His voice is even. “You sound strange.”

“I’m fine, Ben,” I say. “You don’t need to worry about me. How’s Mom doing?”

“She’s the same,” he says. Hard to know what that means, so I let it go.

“Did you fall again?” he asks, realizing I’m not right.

“No, I’m fine,” I lie.

“Are we still on for tomorrow?”

“Yeah, sure.”

Pretty soon after I hang up, Janet calls. I haven’t heard from her for two weeks. Acid hits my stomach, and my mouth suddenly lacks moisture. The rain has stopped; the breeze is again too hot. I feel sitting is too much, so I ease myself back down to the floor.

“Ben says you’re not well,” she says.

“No, I’m fine,” I smack my dry lips. “How are you?”

“I’m coming over, okay.” It wasn’t a question. I listen to the dial tone.

I sit up against the bed for a few minutes. I don’t remember passing out. I was writing at my desk one moment, then I felt the tightness and buzzing in my head—the world closing. Next thing, I’m sucking the floor. It doesn’t feel that long, but I must sit there for a while because I soon hear the door lock turn. Janet lets herself in, and I stand too quickly and start to tidy up the room. She comes to the doorway as I manage to tuck in the sheets. She looks good. I try not to think about how I appear to her.

“What are you doing?” she says, a tone of accusation, faithful to her aversion to customary greetings.

“I’m making the bed,” I say, my back to her as she enters the bedroom.

“No, Harry,” her tone stirs me, “I mean, what the fuck are you doing? You tell me you need space to work, to deal with your shit, but your brother keeps calling me, says you’re fucked up all the time. Beyond stoned.”

The warm night air makes the sheets stick as I try to smooth the bed, so I leave it. She bends over to help straighten the bed corner. I don’t say anything, but I want to tell her that I haven’t had a drink in weeks, that the pot isn’t a problem anymore, but since she’s left, I have barely been able to leave this miserable apartment. The smell of the rotten garbage, the dog shit, it’s overpowering in the sticky night air. I don’t say anything.

“Jesus, Harry,” she says, about to go one way but then changes tack. “I can’t stay with my sister anymore. It’s been three weeks. If you want space then you fucking move out this time. Go live with Ben or something if you want. Jesus, Harry, I’m your wife. Do you know how humiliating it is to tell my sister that my husband needs time away from me?”

“Okay,” I say.

The breeze ruffles her black hair, and I feel a wave of tenderness towards her. I see her differently now, as someone wounded, not whole. I try to put it out of my mind. I lean against the chair, hoping it’s not evident that I am too weak to stand on my own. The subway screech from the elevated tracks carries well in the heat and fills the apartment.

“Janet, I’m not doing well,” I say then, not sure whether talking about my condition is a good idea. “I have barely been outside since you left. I’ve been passing out more often. I don’t know. Maybe your absence hasn’t agreed with me.”

“Harry, you need to help me here,” she says. I think she’s crying a little, but she turns to me with steel eyes. “You cast me out like I was damaged goods. I’m not the guilty party here, even though you think I am.”

We drive to her sister’s place in Queens the next morning to pick up her stuff. I haven’t been outside in more than a week, and the light is too bright, the air is too humid. I sit on her sister’s couch while they pack, watching a group of kids playing on the street in front of the house.

The following weekend we have lunch with Ben and Sheila to celebrate our getting back together.

“My God, you’re huge,” Janet squeals when she sees Sheila. “You look amazing.”

“Two more weeks,” Sheila says, her hand on her distended stomach. “I’ll be glad to be free of it. You should see me try to get up from a chair.”

All of us laugh, although I know it’s more out of nervousness than enjoyment. Ben hands us opened beers.

Sheila, lifting her water glass, says, “To a long life together.”

“To new life soon to come,” Janet says, pulling me out of the moment.

We eat spaghetti and salad with efficiency, pausing only to talk in general and salutatory terms about how important it is for couples to work through their problems. The context is left unsaid, and I try not to think too much about Sheila and Janet sitting next to each other, one bursting and the other barren. When Janet told me what the doctor had said, I felt my love leave, not my love for her, but my capacity for the emotion itself vanished. I said I needed to be alone awhile. I didn’t mean the awhile part, but I said it to avoid more of a scene. So, I’m an asshole. But then, fucking Christ, the storms began, and the air was so hot I couldn’t breathe, and I couldn’t stay standing. Waves of weakness started in my knees and went right to my head until the room spun, and the floor rushed up to my face to hold me. After lunch, Ben and I walk to buy cookies down the street while the women stay at the apartment. A thin calm wind kills some of the humidity, dries out the air. The black clouds have been gone for a few days, but the heat is going nowhere. Sweat envelops me after five paces.

“I hope Shelia’s pregnancy doesn’t bring up bad stuff for you and Janet,” Ben says. “Don’t worry about it,” I say, wishing he hadn’t said anything. “No, we’re happy for you guys. Having a little nephew will help, I think.”

“I’m glad you feel that way.”

“So how’s Mom?” I say, couldn’t stop myself.

“Not good,” he says. When he talks about Mom, his voice becomes heavier, self-satisfied with the burden, the older brother. It is the same voice he used when I was at college, and he called to tell me Dad had died. I hate that tone, but I know to expect it.

“You should visit her,” he says. “She’s not improving. She asks about you.”’

“I know. I will.” I don’t know if I will.

On the way back, my legs feel that tingle. I sit for a few minutes on the sidewalk and eat a cookie. I don’t faint. Ben stands over me, looking down the block as I rest. I can tell he is annoyed, his patience thinning. Finally, he pulls me up, and we walk the block back to his house.

The following week, Janet and I order dinner and watch movies after she comes home from work. She folds her legs underneath her and presses her back against me. We are taking it slow, neither of us mentioning sex or pushing it. I’m glad, but I worry about how it will be when it happens. We always used condoms, until last year, waiting for our time, not knowing we had nothing to wait for. No time was ours. Now, intimacy seems pointless, poisoned. I make plans to visit Mom. Janet offers to come, but I say I’ll be all right.

The assisted-living center where Mom stays seems cheerier than I imagined. When I see her at the table, smaller than ever, nodding to sleep with a magazine on her lap, my stomach tightens. I remind myself this would be a terrible time to pass out, knowing that sometimes such a thought might trigger it, but I feel stable. She recognizes me as I approach, shaking herself awake, looking more like herself for a moment. She kisses me and asks about Janet. I don’t think Ben told her about the separation, so I say she’s okay. I think she’s embarrassed by her limited speech, so she doesn’t say much. We look at her magazine together.

I ask Janet sitting on the couch that evening: “Who is going to visit us when we are old? Or, if it’s just you, an old widow? I don’t want you to be alone.”

“Don’t talk like that,” she says, looking away from me to the muted screen. “Maybe you should have married someone else.”

Her body shivers in a soft sob against me. I’m an asshole, again. I always assumed I would someday be a parent, and then for the past few weeks, I have tried to get my head around the fact that I would never be one. Sitting with my mother earlier, I realized these past weeks it was as if I stopped being a son too, as if the promise of being a child was inseparable from the ability to have one. I know right then, sitting with Janet, that we will adopt. The hum of Janet’s breathing calms me. The booming crackle of the subway on the elevated track outside reminds me of rolling dice, a drum roll, thunder—no metaphor is adequate. It is only its own thing, only itself. The storm starts again. Rain splatters against the window and water drops fall in a zig-zag race down the dark pane, refracting the street lights, each one capturing the world in its tiny infinite lens.