Edited by Blas Falconer | Amy Wright
When I was nine years old, I watched my grandfather burn down the family business, a home furnishings store called Remarkable Lamps. Arson, I suppose you’d call it, though he hardly cared about the insurance money. Looking back, I can see how the pressure was getting to him. I don’t think he woke up that morning thinking about the stack of tea towels he would toss in the trunk of his car and later use to douse in gasoline, but still, the evening ended in flames.
It was Halloween. Earlier that night, after trick-or-treating, but before bedtime, my grandfather wheeled the television set into the kitchen and the three of us shared a bowl of popcorn at the kitchen table. I was still dressed in my spider costume—a black leotard, wool tights, and a knotty, handmade mess of black yarn hanging off both my arms—when my grandmother, tired from a day spent cooking, found a diamond ring nestled among the apples and Hershey bars at the bottom of my Halloween goodie bag.
“This is an omen,” she said, dropping the apples into the trash.
Her kitchen glowed with celestial gloom. Silken draperies closed against the neighborhood outside. Decorative plates hung on the walls, and a shelf in the front window housed a collection of colored glass. My grandfather sat at the table drinking coffee from a porcelain cup. Grandmother shoveled the remaining Halloween candy into the door of the refrigerator, took up a paring knife, and began to slice at the mass of tangled yarn hanging off the arms of my spider costume.
“Watch out,” my grandfather said. “You’ll cut off the poor child’s arm.”
Everyone called me the poor child. The poor child looks like skin and bones. The poor child ought to learn some manners. The poor child needs a brother or sister. That I could do eighth grade algebra and play a mean violin never seemed to convince anyone that fortune, the kind that could be measured by handshakes and eye contact, ever would cast its light upon my sickly frame.
“She looks like a harlot,” my grandmother said, still hacking away at the web of yarn. “You didn’t even make her wear a coat.”
“The weather, my dear, is balmy,” Grandfather said. “And what with the neighbors giving out diamond rings and everything, I thought we should be showing off her costume. Stand up, Judith, show Grandma the way you catch flies in your web.”
My grandfather, who wore a bow tie every day of the year except for Christmas, had the starved look of a specter rattling chains. Had he played a musical instrument, he would have played the pipe organ or bassoon.
I leaned forward in my chair, but my grandmother, her arm muscled from years spent working in the garden, pushed me down again and slammed the paring knife, blade facing my grandfather, onto the center crease in the kitchen table. Grandfather jumped.
“I’m serious,” Grandmother said. “People don’t just hand out diamond rings for Halloween. This is a sign.”
Grandfather turned to me and said, “Go to bed, Judith.” Then, to my grandmother, “The poor child never gets any sleep.”
“I don’t want to go to bed.”
Grandmother grabbed a Baby Ruth from my goodie bag and shook it at Grandfather. “I said this business decision of yours would bring us to ruin, and I was right.”
The business decision, to hand over the day-to-day business of Remarkable Lamps to my father and stepmother, had caused its share of controversy, both within the family and without. Earlier that day, I had overheard my father and stepmother discussing selling off all the old merchandise and transforming the failing furniture store into a mail-order outlet for fake flowers and novelty gift items. They wanted to change the name to “A Bright Idea.” Grandfather, powerless to stop them, would be crushed when he found out.
“Relax, Markie,” Grandfather said. Markie was short for Remarkable, my grandmother’s odd and beautiful first name. Remarkable Andrews Bradwardine. Grandfather named the furniture store after her.
“Take it back,” Grandmother said. “Get Judith’s coat and go back out. I’ll wrap the ring in tissue paper.”
“It’s after ten o’clock,” he said. “Listen to yourself.”
“My costume is ruined,” I said, happy to take Grandfather’s side. “I can’t go back out now.”
So often my grandparents fell into these argument-driven, bizarre late night eruptions. Their neighbors, bankers and lawyers who rode their bicycles around the city square, witnessed their twilight fights on the tennis courts of the country club. Behind their backs, their bridge partners called them Calamity Jane and Frankenstein’s monster. Worst of all, working in retail turned them half-crazy near the holidays. Blue light special! Lamps, lamps, lamps! Buy one get one free!
Finally, Grandfather agreed to go searching for the diamond ring’s rightful owner: a newly engaged schoolteacher perhaps, or a doctor’s wife whose weight loss program had made her finger too small for her former body’s jewelry.
“Just start knocking on doors,” Grandmother said. “Don’t come back until you’ve rid the house of this curse.”
Grandfather agreed, with the stipulation we would venture out in his Chevy rather than setting out on foot. On the way out the front door, he grabbed a stack of tea towels from behind the kitchen sink.
I always liked riding in my grandfather’s car. To this day, the smell of pipe tobacco makes me think of the soft glow from the interior dome light, the tall black dashboard, the polished chrome on the radio’s oversized dials.
“Hop in,” my grandfather said, patting the passenger seat as if ushering a pet toward a dreaded visit to the vet’s office. “We’ll make a few passes around the block, and, by the time we come back, she’ll have forgotten all about us. That woman’s attention span is shorter than a five-cent fuse.”
I slid into the front seat and relaxed into the dark cave of the car. Grandfather tuned the radio until he found a weather report and slowly backed out of the long gravel driveway. In an instant, he reached for a flask he kept tucked in the breast pocket of his jacket and took a long swig. The diamond ring, safe in small black box, seemed somehow dangerous on the front seat between us.
“My costume,” I said. “No one can see it under this coat.”
“Don’t worry,” he said, swallowing hard from the flask. “The coat is only for show. You can take it off as soon as we go around the corner here.”
He put on the blinker and turned without slowing down. Crossing the centerline, he veered into the oncoming traffic, but pulled back again at the last minute. In those days before Mothers Against Drunk Driving, mothers (and fathers, too) could do most anything they pleased. I took off my coat and threw it onto the backseat. Pleased with Grandfather’s plan to orchestrate some small, secret deception, I patted him on the shoulder.
Soon, we found ourselves heading toward the commercial district, the tall trees of my grandparents’ country club neighborhood disappearing into the distance. I didn’t yet know how to find my way around town, but I instinctually knew my own house lay somewhere ahead, a long ride past a winding brick lane with churches on either side. My elementary school and the grocery store were further still.
Finally, I realized we were heading toward the grand brick building formerly known as Remarkable Lamps. My grandfather’s thumbs tapped against the steering wheel as we cruised past the shutter mill, the pipe fitters’ warehouse, and the typewriter repair shop. I didn’t understand the full extent of his anger, but knew full well my father’s newfound fortune came at the expense of Grandfather’s giving into old age. Grandfather’s was the land of obsolescence, the reality of hard work’s forgotten promise, and the final, heart-stopping reality of depression and debt.
Maybe he drove to Remarkable Lamps because he always did, because his daily commute seemed like the only habit worth repeating, because his Chevy knew no other destination. At the time, I thought he wanted only to make quick work of the diamond ring, and, wise with the knowledge his wife, Remarkable Andrews Bradwardine, would vow never to set foot on the premises of the failed family business, he figured Remarkable’s Dumpster was the only place safe from its namesake’s prying eyes.
“Listen,” he said, stopping the car in front of a series of wooden crates stacked up around the edges of Remarkable’s loading dock. He turned off the headlights. “Don’t tell your grandmother. We’re going to leave the diamond ring for the garbage men. No one will know the difference.”
“She’ll find out,” I said. I fiddled with the black yarn on my costume. “We had better go back to the Country Club and start knocking on doors.”
“Going soft on me, are you?”
“No,” I said. “She’ll be angry.”
“I’ll worry about that,” he said. “Stay here.”
With a quick, one-handed motion, he grabbed the wad of tissue paper containing the diamond ring and stuffed the slim crinkled packet into his closed fist. He left the car running and the driver’s seat door open. In an instant, I heard the clank of diamond against Dumpster-bottom metal. I hadn’t known the Dumpster would be empty. He, too, seemed surprised the garbage truck already had come and gone.
“No one ever tells me what’s happening around here,” he said when he returned. “Used to be Mondays and Thursdays.”
“Someone will find it,” I said. “We’ll get in trouble.”
He turned on the car’s headlights. The loading dock, flattened cardboard boxes stacked in every corner, shone under the twin round beams. Broken basement windows allowed rodents inside the warm confines of Remarkable’s old location for first-floor electrical storage. A metal sign ordering employees to park in the rear of the building, one of my father’s crowd control initiatives, leaned to one side, its lettering splattered with mud. Curtains hanging in Remarkable’s executive office suite looked thin like my grandfather’s eyelids right before bed.
“Listen,” he said. “Did you, or did you not, find that diamond ring in the bottom of your Halloween goodie bag?”
“And are you, or are you not, under my care and protection for the next forty-eight hours at least?”
“Until my dad gets back, I guess.”
“Your dad,” he said. “Someday you’ll understand about him.”
“He wants to change the name,” I said, impulsively, knowing this revelation would hurt him. “He wants to call it, A Bright Idea.”
The color in his face changed—a dramatic darkening like lights in a stage play. He put the Chevy in reverse and backed away from the loading dock.
I wanted something to happen. And I wanted to feel important. Whether my actions arose from cruelty or mere curiosity, I do not know. In any case, I turned to my grandfather and said, “He’s changing everything. He wants to sell off all the furniture and buy a bunch of whoopee cushions and fake flowers and plastic dog poop and—“
“Enough,” he said, then, immediately, “When did he decide this?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Can we go home?”
“In a minute,” he said. “Put on your coat.”
By then, I knew for sure my costume would garner no more admiring looks that Halloween night, so I did as he suggested and fumbled in the backseat for my parka. Resentful, I zipped up the front and drew the hood around my head.
“Listen, Judith,” he said “One day you’re going to grow up and some handsome young fellow is going to have his own bright idea and give you one of those diamond rings for real. He’ll control the money and you’ll have nothing but his good graces at allowance time. Don’t fall back on your savings. Get a job.”
At the time, I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian, so I heartily agreed with his admonition.
“A bright idea,” he said again. “Whoever heard of such a thing?”
If Remarkable Lamps meant hard work and continual worry, A Bright Idea might mean instant profits and customers crowding the showroom floor. Not that my grandfather cared. I didn’t know anything about business, but I did have that strange sense of entitlement so many young people possess, the same robust awareness that leads children to order their parents to stop smoking or to mock their grandparents’ taste in music. Marketers target children and children aren’t stupid. Always they carry with them the knowledge of their own superiority. For my money, a pack of chewing gum that would stain your tongue an inky black sounded better than a sectional sofa any day of the week. So it would not have bothered me to see Remarkable Lamps become a wasteland of plastic crap made in China—nowadays, most furniture, too, is plastic crap made in China—but I knew Grandfather had put his entire life into making the furniture store successful. Plus, I wanted someone to notice me. I don’t know what my grandfather wanted. Maybe old age found him retreating into childhood and he, too, wanted the barest measure of respect.
I’ve never told anyone this before, but we did it together. Together, we burned down Remarkable Lamps. Together in the front seat of his Chevy, we hatched our plans. The clock struck eleven—I counted the low, sonorous tones from the bank building nearby. For a while, we said nothing. I opened and closed the glove box; he drank from his flask. He asked me if I remembered the bonfire at the beach last Fourth of July. Of course, I said, how could I forget? He asked me if I had enjoyed myself, and I assured him I’d had loads of fun, the bonfire and the fireworks later on had been my favorite parts of the whole weekend. What if, he said, we made a practice of having bonfires on every major holiday—Christmas, New Year’s, my birthday, and especially and most importantly, Halloween. We needed to show people, he said. We needed to show people we were people of action.
“I’m a person of action,” I said.
“Of course you are.”
“Who cares about a bunch of nasty old furniture, anyway,” I said.
“You’re right,” he said. “It’s worthless.”
He parked the car underneath a streetlamp about a block away. In the distance, we could hear music—disco? rock ‘n’ roll?—blaring from some faraway Halloween party in the college district down the block. The downtown streets, though, were all but empty. In the trunk of his car, he had a can of gasoline, a box of matches, and the stack of tea towels he had grabbed from behind the kitchen sink. We walked along together past the shuttered stores. He carried the matches and tea towels; I carried the gas.
By the time we made it to the loading dock, Grandfather was out of breath. One last chore, he said, and then we’d be able to have some real fun. We deposited our fire-starting tools underneath an awning by the service entrance and returned empty-handed to the loading dock. Quietly, we approached the metal Dumpster, empty except for the diamond ring wrapped in tissue paper. He stacked up two empty crates against the side of the Dumpster and climbed on top of the leaning tower. A mistake, he said. Throwing away the diamond ring had been a terrible mistake. I asked him how we could possibly get it back, and he explained his plan to hold me by the ankles and lower me down into the Dumpster. At first, I was afraid. His grip, I knew, was not the firmest, and I shuddered to think about Grandmother’s reaction upon discovering he had deposited me in a Dumpster and left me alone to die. Finally, he convinced me of the merits of his plan, and I stacked two additional wooden crates and climbed up toward my grandfather who, birdlike, perched above me on the edge of his own makeshift platform.
I scooted up, the wool on my costume snagging the roughness on the wooden crates. The front face of the Dumpster angled down toward the parking lot in a slight slope, so I could lean toward the outer edge without falling to the bottom. Grandfather gripped my waist, and I reached toward the darkness below. To my surprise, the Dumpster was not empty at all; rather tall stacks of sofa cushions leaned on either side of the wad of paper I assumed to contain the diamond ring. Grandfather coaxed me forward. I groped through the darkness and tried not to inhale the stench of a thousand moldy carpet samples and the forgotten banana peels from thirty years’ worth of discarded bag lunches. Finally, my hands greasy and my costume ripped, I emerged from the Dumpster victorious.
“The diamond ring,” I said. “I’m rich.”
We stepped down from our wooden crates and felt ourselves once again on firm ground. Grandfather unwrapped the diamond ring and placed it on my finger, though it was too large for me by far. I cupped the ring in the palm of my hand. He kneeled, taking my hand in his.
“Judith,” he said. “This is important.”
“We should go home.”
“Keep this ring,” he said. “It’s yours. Forever.”
“Grandmother will find out. Dad will find out.”
He assured me the secret would be ours. I put the diamond ring in the front pocket of my parka. For the remainder of my childhood, I kept the ring in the far reaches of my closet, the crinkle of tissue paper every year during spring cleaning a reminder of my hidden shame. After graduating high school, I moved the ring to a safe deposit box in the local post office—a secret, even from those closest to me. For a while, I imagined I would give it to my own daughter on her wedding day, but my daughter, I can already tell, will not marry. Maybe all the more reason to give her the ring.
I think Grandfather wanted to hurt my father. Or he wanted to determine his furniture store’s fate: never would it stoop to the level of hucksterism. Probably, too, he wanted to hurt my grandmother, to steal the furniture store from her for good. Why he made me his accomplice I don’t know. In any case, I was a willing conspirator.
We walked back to the service entrance where he instructed me to stuff the tea towels in various strategic locations—in the door jambs, between the gutters and the wooden shingles around the facing of the service entrance, in the open window of first-floor electrical storage. He did his own work quickly and efficiently, the fumes from the gas burning both our eyes. I felt excited, the same way I might feel during a tornado warning or upon learning of a snow day from school. He ordered me to stand back.
“Some things aren’t worth saving,” he said.
“This is the right thing to do.”
“Remarkable,” he said, and lit the first match.