The Lamp at the Turning

E. Lily Yu

For ten years the streetlamp on the corner of Cooyong and Boolee kept vigil with the other lamps along the road. They were surrogate moons for an age when the moon itself was too distant and dim to guide travelers in the night, and they performed their duties faithfully and with pride in their high purpose. With the rest of its battalion, the streetlamp opened its one eye when night fell and shut it in the gray hours of morning. When it rained and water pooled in the gutter it could sometimes see itself, swan-necked and orange and not, it thought, unlovely.

Besides the quiet presence of the other lamps, it had for company a sea gull who would perch on its head and gossip about his chicks and in-laws and the rubbish heaps he had visited. Sometimes a migrant with brilliant feathers would bring news from far-off countries. There was very little the streetlamp wanted that it did not have.

One morning in autumn, as the leaves were beginning to crisp and curl, the streetlamp saw a young man in a red jacket walking along Boolee. It knew the people who passed it every day juggling cell phones and briefcases, dragging groceries, jogging, and it had seen him often before, but this time it noticed the sunlight flashing off the facets of his watch and glasses and the electric currents that oscillated through and around him, sinoatrial node to atrioventricular node, nerve to nerve, silver oxide battery to shivering grain of quartz. It pondered his fluttering damp hair and fluted ears and how he held himself with the careful gravity of the young pretending to be old. After he vanished from sight the streetlamp found itself hoping he had forgotten a book on the kitchen table or left the stove on, so he would turn back and it could watch him a few minutes longer.

In the park across the street the elms and oaks were browning at their tips; magpies conferred and conspired in the grass. Now and then a car or bicycle chortled by, ripping the air with its wheels. None of these things interested the streetlamp any more. It was impatient for the evening and the migration of office workers and clerks homeward, the young man among them.

It lived now for the moment early in the morning when he hurried up Boolee, his shirt neat, his hair combed to velvet, and for the moment in the afternoon or evening when his shadow preceded him down Cooyong. The night and day seemed miserably long, the other streetlamps dull and unfeeling. Even the conversation of the gull, when he dropped by, became tiresome.

For a month the streetlamp marked its mornings and evenings by his footsteps. It wanted him to meet its orange eye and understand that it loved him with every wire and soldered synapse of its being. Instead of snapping to attention with the rest of the lamps, it waited until it saw him before it flickered on. Though he worked long hours in the office and came home at irregular times, the streetlamp always watched for him. When he passed he would glance at it with curiosity but without slowing his step.

Finally, one night when he had stayed at the office until seven, he paused beneath the streetlamp, which had lit up as soon as it saw him. He put his hand on its metal post and said, “You wait for me every day, don’t you?”

The streetlamp thought it would short out for happiness. It watched him go with brightness in its heart, and long after the heat of his hand had dissipated it remembered its shape and pressure.

He didn’t stop again after that, but when he passed by he nodded at it as though to say hello, and sometimes he would smile. Sometimes the streetlamp winked at him. There were mutters of disapproval along the street, and even the sea gull said it was a bad business, but nothing could perturb the streetlamp’s profound joy.

One evening the young man was not alone. A woman with hair braided to her waist walked beside him, and she looked at him the way the streetlamp looked at him, as if she wished a spark would jump between them. The streetlamp felt a black, sputtering anger in its circuits.

They stopped on the corner under the streetlamp.

“This light always goes on when I walk by,” he said. “See?”

She tilted her head to meet the streetlamp’s gaze. On the surface of her pupils it saw two points of orange light, and below that, secret and sad, a loneliness like its own.

“It must be in love with you,” she said.

“That’s cute.”

They went on, their heads bent toward each other, talking but not touching. Once she glanced back at the streetlamp.

The winter went by quickly. The streetlamp grew icicles and lost them but hardly felt the cold. Twice each day it saw the man in the red jacket turn the corner, and that was all the summer it wanted. If he coughed on the sharpness of the air, or if his face paled in the wind, it only made him more beautiful to the lamp, and it flung its light lovingly around his shoulders, as though to warm him.

Then a day came when the young man should have gone to work but did not. He did not pass the streetlamp in the evening, nor the next day. It waited for him, keeping its sodium tubes dark well past midnight and bright well past noon, but he did not appear.

A few weeks later, the woman came and stood under the streetlamp, her hands in the pockets of her leather skirt, her green scarf shivering in the wind. Her eyes were smudged and dark.

“He’s gone,” she said. “New job, different town. I thought you might want to know.”

She touched the base of the streetlamp with one gloved finger and was gone.

• •

Spring came, and the furred buds along the branches of trees burst softly into bloom. One day the town’s electric company drove their van up the street and parked under the streetlamp, which had stopped lighting up at all.

“This one’s a mess,” one of the electrical workers said, examining the paper on his clipboard. “Been erratic all winter.”

“What’s it done?”

“Turned on and off at odd times.”

“That shouldn’t be possible.”

“I want a look at the photoelectric control.”

They removed the panel at the base of the street light and cut out the small box from its entangling wires. A small sigh moved the air, but it was impossible to say where it came from, whether the watching streetlamps or the trees. The electrical workers did not hear.

“You’re right, it’s dead.”

“Got a spare?”

“Right here.”

They scraped, knotted, snipped, then gathered their red-handled tools and left.

When the sunlight slanted and faded into darkness, all the lights on the street flashed to life at once, like a string of stars fallen to earth. A sea gull rowed by on black-tipped wings, but not finding anyone it knew, flew on.

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