“Lights” by Judith Ford

I’m four years old and beginning to notice dead things, like a motionless baby bird lying beneath a tree, a cat flattened into a furry pancake in the street. I ask my parents what these things are and why they look like that. My parents do their best to explain it to me. These things are dead, they say; they were alive and now they are not. My parents tell me something like, “When you die you go to heaven to be with the angels.” Animals go there too, they say. I can’t quite get my mind around any of this. The idea that something or someone can be alive on earth one minute and not the next is terrifying, even if they have gone to be with angels.

By the time I’m a first-grader, I’m a firm believer in God and Christ and the importance of being a good girl. I do my best. I know God is watching me, the way Santa Claus watches me in December. So I’m kind to animals always and to my big brother, most of the time. I obey my parents nearly always. I pray on my knees every night before I get into bed. I go to Sunday school.

I am a very good girl, but still there is death. I struggle with that. That death exists. The very thought of anyone on earth dying fills me with sorrow and shame. Shame because I think I should have figured out a way to keep people from dying (maybe I have to be an even better girl?), sorrow because I can’t imagine surviving the deaths of my parents, which at six, I’m old enough to just barely be able to imagine. My mother is sick a lot. So, to protect her—and everyone else—I add a p.s. to my nightly “Now I lay me down to sleep” prayer: something like, “Dear God, don’t let anybody anywhere die tonight.”

Yet, deaths keep on happening. I see it in the fallen nests, the flattened animals, and on the TV news. When I turn seven, my grandfather Charlie dies. Gone to the angels, they tell me again. I’m not too sure I believe in or like those death angels. What is clear to me is that I’ll never see Gramp again, never smell his stinky cigar or hear his belly laugh. I don’t like any of this.

In my seventh summer, the little boy in the house behind ours abruptly stops coming over to invite me to play. I ring his doorbell and ask his mother if he can come out. Her eyes fill with tears. “Peter is sick,” she says and closes the door. I go back the next day. No one answers. No one answers the day after that or the day after that. Then finally one day, the door is flung open even before my pointed finger reaches the doorbell button. Peter’s father, red-faced and disheveled, shouts at me, “Go away! Peter can’t play with you! Stop bothering us!” Weeks later my mother tells me Peter is dead. He had cancer, a scary illness I hadn’t heard of till then.

 I’m stunned. How can this be? I played softball with Peter just a few months ago. We built a snow fort together in the backyard last winter. How could someone I could see and hear and touch just a little while ago not be there anymore? I don’t like the empty Peter-shaped space that rises up in my mind now whenever I think of my friend.

One night after my nightly bedtime prayers, a few months after Peter died, I tell God we need to talk. I tell God I’m mad at him. I don’t like that, despite my commitment to him—my consistent prayers and Sunday school attendance—death keeps happening. Is there something else I should do to prevent it? I taught myself how not to throw up when I had the flu, how to be in the dentist’s chair and not be there at the same time. Surely there has to be something I can do to prevent people dying. And if not everyone, then, perhaps just the ones I like. And me. Please, God, come and talk to me.

 I pull the lambswool quilt, sewn by my great-grandmother, up to my chin and try to fall asleep, because I think that God, like Santa Claus, won’t come until I’m asleep. I lie still on my back, hands clenched in a prayerful pose. I know I’ll wake up when God comes. There’ll be harp music and bright lights, I’m sure of it. He’ll be surrounded by sweet smells, I think. Roses and Christmas tree smells. Or the salty smell of the skin on my arm when I’ve been out in the sun all day long. I close my eyes and try to sense God’s presence, to pick up his scent.

It’s August and hot. A window fan buzzes and rattles in my window, pushing waves of warm, humid air over my summer pajamas, my sweating skin. The fan also delivers the smells of damp grass and peonies. Nothing celestial, though, nothing weird or amazing.

The rumble of a passing car squeezes past the fan noise and into my room. My parents’ voices waft up the stairs from the living room, where they sit watching television, smoking, and drinking Schlitz beer.

Eventually, I open my eyes. My room is the same degree of darkness it was before; there’s no heavenly glow filling the dark corners or lighting the white ceiling. God is not sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of my toy shelves. I scan the whole room. My stuffed animals lie in heaps on the shelves. The white cotton curtains that cover my clothes closet are open two or three inches in the middle.

Then, suddenly a bright band of light flashes across the white curtains and sweeps the room like wind. Whoosh! Across the ballerina wallpaper, across the closed bedroom door, the gray floor tiles. It seems to pause for an instant just over my head. Then it gathers itself together and shoots out the window.

I’m breathless with both fear and excitement. Was that God? Had he come?

I close my eyes again and wait. Even with my eyes closed, I know when the light comes. I feel it flash across my eyelids just before it’s sucked back out the window again.

And then, I remember something. Somebody in church last year, who was it, told me, Was it was a Sunday school teacher? No, wait. It was Pastor Riley who said it.

“Nobody is allowed to see God. That’s what faith is—that you believe in God without proof.” That’s what he said in front of the whole church. In fact—and now my heart begins to race—hadn’t Pastor Riley also said that if you see God, terrible things will happen to you? Your eyes boil and fall out, your ears explode. You die. That’s what it was. You blow up and you die!

What have I done? I quickly send God a revision. “Dear God, please forgive me. I forgot I’m not allowed to see you. I don’t want you to come.”

The tone of the fan changes, the way it does when a wind blows over it. At the same time, the curtains glow hot white again, like before. They blow to the right and then outward toward me. Like ghostly hands. Too late, my prayer was too late. This stupid mistake is going to cost me my life. I close my eyes and roll onto my side, curl up into a ball, and pull the quilt up over my head. I can feel the curtains reaching for me. The red light I see through my lids gets brighter as the curtains draw closer and closer. I’m sure they’re about to grab me.

“Dear God,” I pray again. “Please go away. I’m sorry. Don’t kill me.”

The fan noise changes again. I pull the covers down just far enough to peek out over them. My room looks normal. The curtains are still. Everything in the room is covered with the dust of nighttime, gray and thick, blurring all the edges.

And then, the light swoops in again; it caresses the curtains, who sigh under its touch; it slides to the door, leaving a long, rectangular tail of light that stretches from the window across the floor to the closed door. It sets the door aglow. Then as I cower in my bed, head pressed against my curled knees, the light flashes over me again and is gone. At the same time, I hear the sound of tires rolling over the warm street outside, a car drawing back to itself the light it had momentarily cast across my bedroom walls.

Car headlights! Of course! I go limp with relief. I push the quilt off and spread out my arms and legs on the cooling sheets. Breathing. Still alive.

The next morning I wake to summer sunlight and a feeling of having been pulled back from an edge at the last moment. Whether it was God or headlights skimming my room the night before, it almost doesn’t matter. I made a very bad mistake, but amazingly, I’ve lived to see the morning. God is generous and kind.

And yet, as evening approaches, my anxiety grows. So maybethat one time, the sweeping light was car headlights. What about tonight? I’d asked God to come. What was to stop him from coming tonight instead of last night? Maybe last night he was too busy to come. The car headlight theory doesn’t explain why my closet curtains tried to reach me in bed. Maybe I’ve been forgiven, but maybe only for one day, not forever.

I put off going to bed as long as I can. I brush my teeth in slow motion, drag the brush up then down one tooth at a time, many times each tooth. I hold the rinse water in my mouth for a count of thirty before spitting it out. When I reach for the washcloth to wash my face—something that ordinarily is not part of my bedtime routine—I realize my father is standing in the doorway, watching me.

“Are you trying to set a record for the slowest getting-ready-for-bed in the history of all mankind?”

“Maybe,” I mumble through the washcloth.

“I think, little lady, perhaps you don’t feel like going to bed.”

“Just not tired, I guess.” I move the washcloth to one side and smile appealingly up at my father. He sends me to bed anyway.

That night and many nights after, I make certain that I never look at my closet curtains. I suspect I’m being a baby, but I have the feeling that if I don’t catch a glimpse of those car lights, God-lights, whatever they are, glowing on my closet curtains, I’ll be safe. I can look at my curtains all I want in the daylight, but come nighttime, uh-uh. No way.

I conscientiously avoid looking at my closet at night for that entire summer.

As the nights roll past and neither God nor angel appears, I become even more convinced I’m doing the right thing. If I don’t look at those curtains and if I never again ask God to visit me, I’ll be okay. Never mind that somewhere back in my mind, I know the lights I saw skimming over my bedroom walls were the far-flung lights of passing car headlights, and my curtains were probably set in motion by the wind. I kind of know that.

I begin a campaign to convince my father that it’s important for him to replace my closet curtains with real doors, solid wooden doors that you can close and lock if you want to. No one I know, I tell him, has curtains on their closets. I’m embarrassed by mine. I hate them. My father is unimpressed. He tells me that the closet isn’t a standard size, and doors would have to be custom-made. It would be expensive. It isn’t necessary.

By autumn, I confess to my father that I’m scared of my curtains at night when they blow in the wind. “It feels like someone’s there,” I tell him. I don’t tell him who that someone might be. My father says I can keep my light on and read longer in bed at night. He brings me a night-light. The curtains remain. God—or his emissary—never makes a full appearance, but I’m never certain they won’t.

When I’m sixteen, we move to California. I take the curtains down myself and throw them in the trash. From then on, all my bedroom closets will have doors.

Judith Ford worked as a psychotherapist in private practice for 37 years before retiring and moving with her husband and two dogs to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her fiction, essays, and poetry have appeared in literary journals, including Quarter After Eight, Southern Humanities, Lullwater Review, Evening Street Review and many others. She has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, in nonfiction, in fiction and in poetry. In 2005 she won the Willow Review Prose Award and in 2008 her series of haiku poems won “most highly commended” in the Margaret Reid Poetry Contest. She has taught creative writing to sixth graders in a private school, adults at the University of Wisconsin Extension, and teenagers staying in a runaway shelter. She earned an M.F.A. in writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2016. She currently enjoys hikes in the Santa Fe foothills, learning to play the piano and training her singing voice. Her memoir, Fever of Unknown Origin, was published in 2022.

Image: “astral SIM” by Bill Cawley

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