The sky was black. If there were clouds one could not see them. In the blackness on earth there were streets lined with parked cars; there were office buildings and stores, warehouse and factories, filled with machinery and electric wiring and lightbulbs, but there was no light. In the houses and apartment buildings many people slept. Some did not, but they sat in fear and waited for the dawn. They had a long wait; it was not yet midnight. There was no light and there was no sound.
Only, deep in the city park a small orange-red spot of light moved where Bob Teller sat and smoked a cigarette. Every once in a while he reached over and touched the plastic bag by his side. He liked the feel of the hard five-gallon can under the plastic.
Bob Teller was seventy years old and homeless. For forty years he had been a top-notch electrician for one of the town’s big electrical companies. He had wired just about half of the town of Edisonville and he felt proud to have been one of the causes of so much beautiful light. He had thought that he would be an electrician until he died, but when he turned sixty-four the company was taken over by bright-eyed college boys with humanitarian spirits. Their first policy change was to mandate retirement at the age of sixty-five. Bob argued and argued, but he got nowhere. They said they couldn’t make an exception, no matter how fit or able a man was. They told him that the new policy was really in his own best interest.
A month after his retirement Bob, who had lived alone for the past five years following the death of his wife, received a notice stating that his house was sitting on an old wetlands site which had been wrongly filled in by developers thirty years ago. Bob spent all of his savings and most of his retirement pay in court, fighting for his house, and lost. When he was given a government check for his property he tore it up. He had no close friends and no relatives to speak of and so he took what little money he had left and started living on the street.
He spent his days reading paperback detective stories which he bought cheap at used book stores and thrift shops, and he spent his nights lying in the midst of some dense bushes in the city park. He liked to lie there for a few hours before he went to sleep, smoking and looking at the lights of the city. Hundreds of lights flicked on, glowed, filled up the darkness, and they were like his own hands waving to him out of the past as they drew wire, spliced, made new connections that ended in cheering rays of pure energy. He would lie there and watch the glad competence of his life and not feel bitter. He felt only a faint inner glow of satisfaction. He knew that his life had been good.
One bitterly cold night last winter, while Bob lay sleeping in a doorway, with newspaper wadded and stuffed into his pants and shirt and jacket for insulation, a light was shone in his face. He woke to find a cop whom he had come to know standing over him and asking if he was all right. The cop said that next year Bob would be off the street. “They’re going to fix up the old Anderson place and make a lot of rooms for the homeless. I’ll see that you get in.” Bob didn’t answer him, but went back to sleep.
The Anderson place was a huge four-storey Victorian mansion, long since abandoned. It was in bad repair, but the Historic Preservation Society had refused to let it be torn down. “Saving history”, they called it. Two apartment builders had been turned away. It sat there, paint peeling, blank and bare and lightless, night after night. Then the Society For The Homeless got a court order to allow them to put in cheap partitions and make many new rooms for the lost and destitute, while preserving the revered outside of the building. Work was to start in the spring.
“Edisonville To Go Black”, “It’s Lights Out In Honor Of The Globe”. For three weeks the newspapers had been full of headlines like these. Posters and signs everywhere proclaimed the upcoming Glory Of Darkness celebration for the night of February twenty-first. Everyone smiled and nodded and pretended to agree and approve. They talked in over-excited voices as if they were making plans for a camping trip. Some people were annoyed, but kept their annoyance to themselves.
Bob Teller thought. He thought clearly and calmly as he lay in the bushes each night, looking at his beloved lights. He came to a decision, made plans, and acted. And now, here he was, sitting in the absolute darkness with the glow of a cigarette and his plastic bag.
Gong! Twelve times the old clock tower rang out.
It was time.
Bob teller eased himself out of the bushes, grabbed his plastic bag and began walking. When he got to the future house for the homeless he set down his bag. There was a new, ten-foot high wooden fence around the place, to keep intruders out. Bob untied the knot in his bag, reached in and pulled out a can of white spray paint. Then he lit a cigarette, and with the aid of its faint glow proceeded to spray across the fence, in neat wide letters two feet high, HAPPY BIRTHDAY, GEORGE WASHINGTON. When he was finished he flicked the butt into the street, put the can back into the bag and pulled out a pair of metal shears. He cut the metal strap which held the padlock on the gate, put the shears back in the bag, picked it up and walked through the gate up to the empty house. He set the bag down again and pulled out the five gallon can and spun off its top. Then he slowly walked around the house, pouring its contents as close to the walls as possible. When he got back to the front he put the can and its lid back into the bag, tied it, and stood up. He looked around. Not a light on earth, just solid black. He pulled out a book of matches, opened it, ripped one off, struck it, and let it fall at his feet. Two lines of yellow flame raced to each corner of the house. He turned, picked up the bag, and walked through the gate out into the darkness. Two blocks away he threw his bag into a dumpster.
When Bob Teller was back in the bushes again he stretched out, one elbow on the ground, his hand proping his head, and he watched the flames licking up the walls of the house for the homeless. And then a light from a nearby building flicked on and Bob smiled. Then another and another. Then he heard the loud whine of a siren and saw the powerful headlights of the firetruck pouring their sweet white light along the street until HAPPY BIRTHDAY, GEORGE WASHINGTON stood out bold and clear. But, of course, they were too late. The dry old building was soon totally engulphed in yellow flame and dozens of lights were turned on in the surrounding blocks. Then, as if by spontaneous combustion, or as wind-driven sparks, the flicked-on lights began jumping from building to building and house to house, spreading out to street after street, and soon the whole city of Edisonville was awake and alive and ablaze with light.
Bob Teller lay back with his hands beneath his head, watching the lights, his lights. He took a deep, relaxing draw on his cigarette, blew the smoke serenely out and said to himself, “Good job, Mr. Teller.”