Lower Lights, a short story by N.T. McQueen at Spillwords.com
Dave Hoefler

Lower Lights

Lower Lights

written by: N.T. McQueen



Since he was twelve, Homer Bagby never worked the same job for more than six months. His vocations shifted from a diaspora of miscellany and, each year, he lost a part of himself with the work. In his early twenties, he lost the tip of his left pinky finger to a skillsaw while working for Bauchmann Construction but he could not find the missing flesh and bone among the wood scraps and sawdust. Doctor Robert Jamison, during his residency, dressed the wound, and it was Homer who coined the moniker “Doc Rob.”

Five years later, while trimming hedges with Gabriel Jimenez, young Baldomero’s mower caught a small rock and slung the stone as if from a sling and crashed into Homer’s mouth, shattering his left incisor. The gaping hole in his smile always bothered Baldomero the remainder of Homer’s time with them and they seldom spoke.

He lived in the same two-bedroom home for the last thirty-two years, nestled in a small neighborhood above the hills. Despite fate’s malicious intent, he always bore a smile, even after his tooth cracked and his neighbors always joked and laughed when they spoke with him. His transiency of work never interfered with his financial obligations and allowed him surplus money to purchase things he believed he needed. On the occasion he acquired a well-paying job, he saved the money in a tube-sock, rolled tight and wedged at the back of his dresser, and allotted an allowance for good times. He often complained to his co-workers of the corruption of bankers and how those greedy sons-o-bitches stuck their sticky, greedy hands in everybody’s pie and charged you with fees like you parked in a crippled parking space. The corners of his eyes creased and puckered along with his voice. The others often chuckled and coaxed his rants and, even as a young man, those his own age viewed him as a codger. His constant comments on the good ol’ days and how he lauded the lack of luxuries he had as a child further established others’ perspectives. Despite their mockery and jest, he smiled till the muscles in his cheeks ached.

From the first moment he worked, Homer Bagby adopted the schema that he deserved some luxuries in his life. He never absconded his frugality yet it fueled his need for bargains. His hours apart from work included thrift-store hunting and scouring the classifieds. On the occasion he did not work during the weekends, his Saturdays and Sundays consisted of early morning garage sales, flea markets, and occasional antique shops. With each sale or store or market, he never left without a grasp on something. The bed of his Ford Ranger rarely was not filled. The scant nature of his purchases caused little alarm among his parents and sister. When they visited Homer from Fresno, they attributed the clutter to his lax attitude and encouraged him to keep things clean in case he invited a lady-friend over. Homer laughed his infectious laugh and waved a dismissive hand, changing the focus to their families and endeavors. The next visit, his father noticed the second bedroom’s door closed and turned the knob in a trepid ease. The door opened a slat and, with his bulky shoulder, pressed forward and a hideous scrape followed the door open. When Homer heard the noise, a tragic reality pierced him and he shot from the kitchen table. His father stood in the doorway and Homer almost wept at the horror of that face. He closed the door and, though no one spoke of the room and conversation continued, a great unease imbued the atmosphere of his home.

The following summer, the family arrived, his sister cradling his two month old niece and his parents were electric with pride. But he saw the tension in his father’s shoulders as he glanced obsessively toward the hallway and Homer’s desperate attempts to reign those suspicious pupils caused a reunion of what he feared. When his father rose to use the toilet, Homer gripped the edge of his comfy chair and released a nervous stuttering unrelated to the conversation. When his father did not return soon, he stood, interrupting his brother-in-law’s story about a routine moment of fatherhood. Around the corner, his father did not stand at the second bedroom but at the master and Homer witnessed a bitter nostalgia of that grotesque face. His father stood reticent while Homer entered the room, shuffling armfuls of cups, sweaters, stuffed animals, action figures, and vinyls still in their plastic sleeves. He told his father he just didn’t have time to clean up and shoved the sundry items into the metal shelves that bordered his walls, loose items falling for they had no place of their own. His father asked him why and Homer froze with a pile of Scorpions, Twisted Sister, and Skid Row tour shirts draped over his hugging arms. He opened his mouth but could not speak.

He got a job working with Larry Holiday Jr. for two weeks at the Tower Mart by the Chalet Motel while Larry Sr. recovered. His hair had begun to thin in his late thirties so he wore a black, stained Raiders cap he found at the Hospice. He enjoyed working with Larry and they often joked with one another about the frequent customers who, as Homer described, as having a hell of a lot of problems. He was amused by the jittery nature of Oney and, once, shouted “bang” which caused Oney to duck and turn, eyes black and wild. When Mouthy Mary came in bruised, he waited till she had purchased her things and then made vile, invidious comments no man ought to hear. Larry merely offered a forced smile and Homer hated himself for what had come from him and he cursed Larry’s youth. But this position lasted only two weeks for Homer and he left the Tower Mart to work for Vlado Brinkerhoff at Winkie’s Lounge washing glasses and steins and cutlery. His last day at the Tower Mart was Wednesday. He saw the bus pull up outside and slipped a dime roll from the register. Larry sorted inventory in back when he heard the fake then real gun shot and Homer’s lamentable shriek. By the time Larry Holiday Jr. had emerged through the door, he caught the back of Oney’s camouflaged body and Homer clutching at his eye. Blood seeped from between his fingers and he vomited curses over and over. At Doc Rob’s office, he stitched up Homer’s eye but, after some tests, informed him the shrapnel from the shattered glass had embedded in his eye. Homer wore an eye patch for two weeks and growled like a pirate before laughing that deep, bellow. But when the patch was removed, Homer only saw the shadow of the world from that eye.

Once, he landed a county job with sanitation and rode the back of dumptrucks, lifting bins of refuse into the back of the truck. Witnessing what others discarded fascinated Homer. When he would encounter those on his route, he mentioned items they had discarded during the week, some of more intimate matters. Once, he asked Jessica Keel about a pregnancy test while shopping with her mother for prom dresses. Another revealed letters from an affair of the late Jaspar Jerusalem. With the extra money, he bought more tube socks and increased his visits to the usual haunts. He found a faded recliner and a ping pong table for thirty dollars each and bought them without hesitation. When he quit the sanitation job after a yard waste bin slipped from the claws and crushed his shoulder six months later, he lost himself for several months. His chest tightened in sporadic tensions without prompting and, to assuage the discomfort, his diligence to yard sales evolved to a dedication one makes to their craft. He set his alarm for four in the morning every Saturday and ravaged the forgotten treasures labeled and spread across rickety tables and dumped in bins and crates. A voracious compulsion to obtain deals fueled his hands. When he stopped for gas at the Chevron on Main Street and Halpern, an elderly man in overalls inquired how much he charged for a dump haul. Homer laughed off the misunderstanding but the residue of that reality clung to him the ride home. By the time he received the stock job at K-Mart several months later, he had lost his home to his compulsion. He slept on mounds of leather jackets, beanies, and motorcycle gloves he collected but had no place to rest and they cumulated upon his mattress. The constancy of this arrangement resulted in a lumpiness of his muscles more disheveled than the mattress he slept upon. A rancidity seeped from the clutter, a bitter stench of death and decay and he feared rats had infested his home. He promptly bought some traps with his employee discount, smiling as he claimed they were for his sister, and placed them throughout his home.

He could not find his phone, even when it rang. The possessions devoured the pragmatism of his life and he lived in a cluttered surreality where he slunk and squeezed through a labyrinth of his own volition. Car magazines and newspapers stacked from floor to ceiling. A mannequin without arms stood sentry by the front door. He received an invitation for his niece’s sixth birthday and he stared at the picture on the card, unable to accept if the child he saw was actually his blood. He rummaged through his home for old photos of his parents and sister and niece but he could not find those faces anywhere. The objects loomed around him, an insurmountable horde that welled a helplessness he could neither combat nor accept.
His lithe frame dwindled and his coworkers noticed. The outline of his molars shaped against the skin of his cheeks. Muscle wrapped around his bones so gaunt, others feared he may vanish. The deterioration manifested in his weakness and he breaked often during his shifts.
While stacking cans of Pringles along the shelves, Niles Biffles, who smelled of smoke and mint, asked Homer if he ever loved anyone. He paused while placing a can on the shelf and felt tears form in the corners of his eyes. He wiped them quickly before Niles noticed and chuckled, making an obscene sexual remark about a girl he had dated in high school. Their laugh caromed within the aisle and the jovial face of the man on the Pringles cans seemed amused. From the corner of his eye, he saw a shadow advance. The rotund waddle of Jerome Peppers advanced, his brown eyes glancing from side to side as if his intentions were not known. He stopped before them and made notice that the Pringles Homer had lined on the shelves concealed that smiling face. Homer stood with his arms crossed as Jerome lectured him that he may need more training on how to properly stack shelves and other ramblings. Homer felt his cheek muscles ache and sweat gather between his palm and his forearms until Jerome’s finger prodded into Homer’s bony chest.

As if pushing a button, Homer dropped his hands to his side and the words he always hated, terms of ignorance and lack, words steeped in the American psyche to name a darker human, caromed where laughter once echoed. They clung to the air and, as he pondered if those words somehow seeped from the horde of his home, the blow shook him and warmth flooded his mouth as his vision seemed to absorb the fluorescent lights and the impression of Jerome’s hand. The blurry shadows of Niles and Jerome wrestled into focus and, when he spoke, blood gushed over his lips and down his chin faster than the words could leave his lips.

The bleeding stopped in the breakroom but the bulbous swelling constricted his speech. A great weight filled his chest and, before the paramedics arrived, he threw his red vest in the trash bin as he left. He drove to the thrift store just six blocks past Dave’s Auto Repair and parked with the engine running and stared at the entrance and repeated to himself to not go in, not go in, don’t go in. His mind tumbled over the possibility of that one find to end all searches and he placed his hand on the door handle. His tongue ached. As he walked through the doors and heard the greeting by the white-haired women behind the counter, the tension lifted yet he felt the horde cheer, distant and triumphant like a horrid echo of his life.

The most recent purchases had spilled from his home and he stacked them along the driveway and on his small porch. Every other day, the sunlight from his living room window lessened and he could no longer see over the pile outside, nor inside. A small shaft of light illuminated the immediate sheetrock of his ceiling near the window and cast shadows from the texture, gruesome faces all agape in some rapacious howl. The neighbors that sat in faded lawn chairs and drank cans of Tecate whispered and sneered at the degeneracy of his residence, oftentimes tossing empty, half-crinkled cans among the clutter. When he found the cans, Homer often cursed at their shadows and stuffed the debris into his recycle bin. Then engaged in the idiosyncrasies of starting his truck until the engine coughed and vomited the build-up from its metallic lungs.

His bed was not his own and the reality of night burdened him. He saved himself one recliner as his resting place and kept a lamp based with a bronze Buddha by its side that sat precariously atop two volumes of a 1987 Encyclopedia Britannica. At night, he sat under that lamp and cuddled close to the glow, ears open to the groans and creaks around him. His head darted as phantoms strolled in his peripherals. He forced his eyes closed, only to heighten the voice of his creation around him. Beckoning. Singing. Hunger nagged at him but he dared not enter the kitchen. He carried with him the possibility of vanishing should he venture deep into his creation. Devoured. Lost. Forgotten. His eyes sought the familiar faces of his family. They came as fleeting glances desperate and pleading. Their voices called out from behind buried frames. But the papers. Records. Torn paintings. Coat racks and bags consumed those faces. He trembled between the walls. He struggled for breath. He cried out but the horde sucked the plea from the air.

He awoke to the scant sunlight and rose, his sock-clad feet crunching aluminum foil and chipped mugs. But, when he stood, a delirium pervaded his senses and he knew not which way to turn. He attempted the usual routes but they led to a door. A mound. A pile. He wondered if a fisherman felt such panic when he searched around him. Only to see the emptiness of water. Time lost its role. Material hands clawed toward him. He brushed the piles. Avalanches swept at his feet. To his shins. A collision against wood or metal or plaster. Lamps tipped across his path. New paths forged only to old. A terror tautological. Something scurried. Right there. He knew. Words. Formed. In the contours of his bedlam. Choked air. Stolen from his lungs. He saw the cabinets and the cataclysmic guards. A shrill cry from his lips he knew none could hear. The urgency of death seeped into his bones, saturated past marrow to soul. Smoke burned his eyes and he entertained the thought of hell and if the pits were cluttered and if he had created a gateway to the lake of fire.

A violence desperate lashed from his hands and he pulled and ripped and tore, toppled the frenetic tongues from their towers, and laughed at the Elysium of destruction. A Little League trophy he never earned tottered and reeled against his skull and he saw such wondrous colors and nostalgia buried within the horde of his mind. The familial voices so tangible and close he called for his mother and father and the niece whose face he could not recognize aloud but his speech severed by his own tongue. A shattering at his feet as his socked foot rested in an empty fish tank. His hands still clamored and the sting of smoke imbued his nostrils until he felt the curvy waist of a cold woman bearing no arms. He recoiled at her cold touch, hands frantic for the knob. Warmth tickled his ears, plugging the sound. The door swung open and he shielded his eyes. His foot caught a box and his knees clashed with the concrete and he wallowed like a dog before he crawled onto his dead lawn.

He inhaled as if it were his first breath and watched the sweet, curling smoke rise above. The crackle of consuming brush raised his head and he saw the mouth of flame devour the brush around him. He lifted himself to his feet and staggered back to the road, stumbling across pot-holes. Behind his home, the hills raised their fiery hands like some baleful congregation. Fiery sirens wailed around him and the neighbors watched with eyes uplifted at the force ever inching toward them, Tecate in hand. He raised his hand to his ear and fished out the pool gathered there. His life’s work remained in the dereliction of his home and he spied one of the hoses coiled by the Ranger. He jogged over and grabbed the metal grooves at the end of the hose but froze with his hand on the valve. He kept his eyes on the new army descending the hill and tears squeaked from the corners of his eyes.

Among the mounds of things, Homer Bagby grabbed a foldable camping chair from his driveway and sat. The fiery hands of the hill arrived. First catching the roof and spreading from shingle to shingle in a caustic dance. All that existed inside cried out in choral hisses and crackles and pops and he moved his finger as if conducting a symphony. A grizzled neighbor walked up and tapped Homer on the shoulder. Homer turned, eyes red, and the neighbor nodded with a hand outstretched. Homer took the cold can, cracked the top, and nodded in return. He drank as the refining fire devoured his home and all it contained.

The sting burned relief on his tongue and he smiled and sang an old hymn his grandmother sang when she would bathe him as a boy. He watched his life burn away and, when the roof collapsed, he clapped his hands until the ashes of his Babel reigned down upon him singing in his broken tongue Let the lower lights be burning send a gleam across the waves Eager eyes are watching, longing, for the lights along the shore…

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