Wip had been checking the bottom of a picture frame with a bubble level at the moment the light bulb popped. He heard the little explosion but the enormity of what had happened had not yet sunk in.
He had picked up the picture at a flea market, mostly because of the antique cherry wood frame. It was a color poster of a kitten dangling from a piece of rope with a terrified expression. The caption said “Please be patient, God isn’t finished with me yet.” The image, especially around the startled green eyes was peppered with tiny holes, which he guessed may have been made by bugs or by steel darts.
When the light bulb broke it was as though a thunder cloud of leaden gloom had suddenly moved in under the high ceiling. The upper half of the two story Victorian was plunged into dark.
When he realized which bulb it was, the enormity of his betrayal sent a wave of proletarian rage against American companies that pimped their trusted old names out for licensing cheap shoddy bullshit crap made by slave labor in China – Oh! The greedy bastards! This was a florescent bulb. A fluorescent environmentally correct goddamn bulb! According to the back of the box it was guaranteed to last four years. Four mother grabbing years! It had lasted barely 18 months and 27 days, and he had the dated receipt in a designated file drawer and he would teach Walmart to fuck with the likes of him, an informed consumer.
He put his foot on the bottom of the stairs and froze.
The bulb was at the top of the stairs. It was way past evening. It was dark up there, where the bedroom was. It was seriously dark.
The light bulbs were stored in a clean designated place in the bedroom closet in two neat rows, next to two emergency flashlights, also in assigned neat rows. But the closet was up there too. In the dark. Checkmate, Wip.
No. No. Fuck that. I’m changing this cheap piece of crap, by God . . . I . . .
How many obsessive compulsive nyctophobiacs does it take to change a light bulb?
Well, that depends on what time of day it is, doesn't it?
He looked at the couch. He could put on a jacket. Sleep there maybe. He lived alone, the shame would only be his. He took a step towards the couch and the end table lamp died. Two bulbs down. Now it was dark upstairs and getting dark down. It was definitely a conspiracy.
The shakes began from the knees in soft waves, reached his belly, stayed there and quivered him. His belly twitched. His body squeezed and suddenly he felt he had to pee, daddy, pee real bad daddy. He reached down and squeezed himself hard, waiting for the feeling to pass.
When he was a boy, there had been a time when he peed his bed nightly. It wasn’t that he couldn’t hold it, it was that the bathroom was down the dark hallway, the corridor of devils and night terrors. He had stolen a cooking pot and used it for a bed pan and brought it back to the kitchen without anyone knowing until the night he saw his mother cooking stew in it. Then he began to pee his bed and the beatings from his father gotten worse.
He looked up the stairs. He looked at the picture of the kitten with the pock marked face.
God isn’t finished with me either, tonight is the night. Tonight is the night I beat this once and for all. Fuck me if I don’t change that light bulb. By God or the devil, by gosh or by golly, somehow me or the light bulb, one of us is going down.
He put a foot on the stairs and felt waves of dark heat. He cursed Walmart, cursed it out loud and the sound of his voice made him feel stronger. He remembered an old ghost story from summer Bible camp. It began with a circle chant.
“I’m coming to get you!” The thrust of his yell gave him a strange aggressive strength. The boogy man up there had surely jumped back at the sound of his roar. “I’m on the first step!” he yelled. “I’m coming to get you!”
He lifted his foot and it was booted in lead. He panted and coughed at the strain of it, moving in a dream, he lifted the knee and let it drop on the next step above. “I’m on the second step!” He gripped the hand rail, his knuckles ached. “I’m coming to get you!”
He raised the other knee and let it fall. There. Two feet firmly planted on the second step. But he could see the difference in the quality of the light. The second step was so much darker than the first.
“The lord is my Shepard,” he whispered, “I shall not want. He leadeth me . . . “ He lifted his right foot again, he placed it on the third step. “ . . . into still pastures and green waters for his names, his . . . what, his names something or other. Shit.”
The leather shaving strop that hung on the wall by the shower was his father’s favorite whipping tool. The one he used when Wip was very bad. When Wip peed his bed. He had mostly forgotten it until now, pushed it away. He lifted the leaden boot of his left foot and let it drop on the third step with the other. “I’m on the third step!” He took a breath like a drowning swimmer, trying to push it down. “I’m coming to get you!”
Wait – was there another voice saying that with him? Somebody here?
No, the hall echoes, Wip, you know that. He lifted the right foot to the fourth step. Let it fall. “I’m on the fourth goddamn step – Jesus H Christ – I am so fucking coming to get you. How you like that? Huh? You like that?”
He lifted the left foot and it was easier. Yelling definitely made it easier. He dropped it on the fourth step and felt a sense of momentum building. Once on the top landing he would get on his knees and crawl, in case he got dizzy in the thick greasy dark and crawl to the closet. Oh, dear God, the closet door. The very, very dark closet. The very heart of darkness.
He fixed his eyes on the carpet in front of his face. The thought of the closet brought it all back, the hobby horse, raucous frog boiling hobgoblin steam of childhood. But tonight it ends. Childhood dies here. Here I become a man, one step at a time marching on to Manhood until I beat this. Right foot up. Down. There. It’s not that hard. Left foot march. Up. Down. “I’m on the fourth damn step. I’m gonna get you. I sure am. I sure the fuck am – the fifth step – I’m coming, I’m coming, I’m coming to get you little boy!”
Foot up. Foot down.
“The lord is my . . . the lord is my . . . Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb. Her fleece was white as snow.” He blinked, he couldn’t see his feet but they had found the sixth step.
Foot up. Foot down. This isn’t hard. Hup. One. Hup Two. It’s really not that hard once you get it going.
“I’m on the sixth step!”
Hup one. Hup two.
“I’m on the seventh step. I’m coming to get you!”
Foot – No!
His big toe lost the step and dumped him on his face. His nose smashed into the step in a lightning bolt of pain that shot up his forehead into his eyes. Starbursts squirmed in his vision as a stream of heat ran down over his lips. He squeezed the pain down with his eyes, reached up and touched the bridge of his nose. It didn’t feel broken, it didn’t feel loose, not exactly. But there was blood. He was bleeding hot blood everywhere.
That’s a new carpet! That’s a new white carpet. How do you get blood out of a white thick nap carpet? Jesus Christ. People will think someone got murdered with a pole axe when they see this carpet now. There’s blood all over me. All for a goddamn light bulb. God, this sucks. God, I’m no good for anything. Oh God this is never going to end. I’ll be climbing these stairs in Hell for eternity.
He peered down and it was like looking down the side of a mountain. But still, he was half way there. Which step? “I’m on the . . .” Idiot. Which step? It’s important which step.
“I’m on the tenth step!” he yelled. “I’m coming to get you! You better get your ass ready.”
Get your ass ready. He remembered. His father had said that to him. With the leather strop. Get your ass ready. He had said that to his little boy. He laid his head on the step, whatever one it was and his chest heaved. He closed his eyes against the dark, against the fear and the blood and for being a useless fuck up at everything. Again, that feeling of needing to pee so bad. “I’m a fucked up piece of work in progress. You did this to me, dad. But I’m going to be all right after tonight. “
Something heavy fell. Up in the dark, way up there in the middle of the air, Oh sweet baby Jesus, in the dark beyond the steps, way up there in the middle of the air, coming to get me oh Lord. It fell just then. Or maybe landed on its feet. It came from the bedroom. He froze and listened. He held still. He listened and lay very, very still. Breathing warm steam, blood bubbled on his lips.
It’s not about guts if you’re not afraid. Guts only counts when you’re down, and lord have mercy I am so down right now. I’m going to beat the boogy man. If the boogy man is up there with his razor strop I’ll take it away and beat his ass black and blue.
He got to his hands and knees, held tight to the hand rail. “The Lord is my Whatever . . . ever since I was a young boy . . . I played the silver ball . . . From Soho down to Brighton . . . I must have played them all . . .” He rose to his feet with both hands gripping the rail. Right foot on the next step. That’s the stuff. Left foot. Good boy. “I’m on the twelfth step! I’m going to get your ass you little bastard! See if I don’t.”
He lifted his foot and stopped, holding it forgotten in the air. There was a strange smell. A smell of leaves and old earth. An unlucky smell. A breeze where there should not be a breeze. He ground his teeth and yelled “I’m on the - “
Oops. Sorry folks.
Um. That’s just all I’ve got so far.
Gee whiz, I don’t know what the hell happens next. I’m sort of working on it when I can. I’ll let you know sometime.