The Oven Light (1993)
On July 14th, a Tuesday, Arthur Robinson shot his wife Wilma in the chest, twice, and killed her. I was out of town, so I didn’t hear it, although I would’ve if I were home. You can hear everything through these walls. The funny thing is, I wouldn’t imagine a murder happening in this town anyway, it seems more like something that would happen while I was in California. Well, I guess I was in California, wasn’t I?
Arthur Robinson was in the newspaper, in a story with a small picture that was only on the front page for one day.
“I can’t say why I did it,” he told the newspaper, ’but she kept drumming her feet. She kept drumming everything. She’d tap her spoon against the table during dinner, and she’d tap the ends of the crocheting needles together, when she was crocheting. I never realized how rhythmic my own wife was. All that tapping really got on my nerves.”
The newspaper went on for a few paragraphs about what a strange and senseless thing this was, how they’d been married thirty-six years, how Arthur had just retired after working thirty-four years as a delivery driver with the same farm implement company. They had just bought an RV, apparently, were going to go cross-country together. Then he shoots her. Go figure.
I guess I met Wilma Robinson once, when I was moving in, on a Sunday evening. I was bringing my computer up from the car, bringing my stuff up the stairs, because the elevator complained when it went up. It was one of the old-fashioned kind of elevators that used to be in hotels, with a gate, and a window in the outside door. It’s a very nice apartment building, but old, and I wouldn’t use the elevator.
It was my fourth or fifth trip up the stairs, and I was just exhausted, so I set down the computer box and sat on the step next to it. And the heat—it was only May, but the temperature was outrageous, and humid, too. The perspiration wouldn’t roll off my forehead; it’d just bead up and run down into my eyes, and make my glasses slip down my nose.
So I reclined there, perspiring, when she came up in that cranky elevator with her laundry in a basket. She was thin, but not terribly old-looking; not as old-looking as she probably was, anyway. She had long hair, and you kind of have to like old women with long, gray hair, when they don’t color it or wear it in a short grandmotherly haircut. She stopped and looked at me.
“Hello,” she said.
“Hi,” I said back. She looked at me for a second, so I said, ”what about this heat?”
“Oh, lord, but isn’t it hot?” she said. I was walking now, with the computer, so we were walking together. “I don’t even want to move in this weather.”
“Yeah, tell me. Hey, we’re neighbors,” I said, when we got to our doors. She lived in the apartment next to mine.
“Why, yes, we are, aren’t we?” She opened her door and set the laundry down inside. I could see into her room, because she’d left a light on. It’s one of the big ones, with two bedrooms, and it had that crazy old woman smell in it, antiseptic and bathroom cleaner, and dust. I’d say she lived alone, which is probably what I thought at the time, although there was some sort of animal hanging on the wall, a duck or something. Now that I think about it, an old woman who lived alone probably wouldn’t have a duck on the wall.
“Well,” she said, “it was nice meeting you...”
“My name’s Wilma.”
“Good to meet you.”
“Well, good night, Edgar.”
“Yeah, seeya,” I said, and she went into her apartment.
Well, when I moved to Lincoln, it was probably May sometime—no, May 10th, a Saturday, for certain. It must have been that Saturday, because my last final was on the Wednesday before, and I skipped graduation.
I got up around seven fifteen, which is just the time I always wake up if I don’t set an alarm, put on my UCSC sweats, and walked down to the Francisco Street School playground. I don’t remember what the weather was when I got up; probably around sixty-five and a little cloudy, because that’s what the weather’s like when you don’t notice what it was like.
On Sunday mornings you don’t have to share the playground very much, and today there were only two other people: two kids playing rollerblade hockey. One kid just wore regular old little kid clothes, shorts or whatever, but the other wore a Sharks jersey, Sharks shorts, everything. He had a killer slap shot, too.
I shot twenty-three of thirty from the free throw line, but six hit the backboard, and seventeen of thirty from the three-point line, and then walked home, stopping off for an orange juice at Kee’s. They were out of Minute Maid, so I drink Sunkist instead, and it just seemed like that sort of day.
I sat on the curb looking down the hill at the Wharf, drinking Sunkist. The Vallejo tourist ferry, the Red and White, pulled out into the Bay, trailing a thin white wake like it were dragging something—celophane, maybe—from the front of it.
My mom was leaving to visit Crazy Aunt Arlene in Eugene, so she left just before I did.
She hugged me before she put her luggage into her car. ”Drive carefully, Eddie.”
“And call me when you get there.”
She looked hard at me, set her luggage on the passenger’s seat, and sniffed. “Look at you. I...you’re leaving and...”
“I know, Mom, don’t get...”
“I’m proud, Eddie.”
“Don’t get sentimental, Mom.”
“I know.” She gets in her car. “Drive carefully.”
But even though there wasn’t any reason to stick around, I didn’t want to leave. I mean, it wasn’t like there was anyone to say goodbye to. We don’t even have a dog. I just climbed the hill to Coit Tower and looked out across the Bay. I could feel the cool magic of the morning slipping away from me, turning over to the warmer, dryer inland air which moves in around eight thirty. The fog rolled back over the Marin Headlands, pulling away from the yellow air moving across the Bay from Oakland. The morning vanished, suddenly into sunshine and transparent air, and I wanted to grab it, and just hold onto it and say, Don’t go, Not yet, Just one more minute, please. I walked back down the hill, looking at the tall stuccoed buildings with bay windows, mashed together side to side. They grew straight up from the sidewalk, like organic things, plants in rows that look the same when you’re not paying attention, but that are really all different.
After I took a shower, I got in my car and worked my way onto I-80 at the Bay Bridge, drove east until I hit Lincoln, Nebraska. I had found a job here, one of six offers after I graduated. Two of the others were in Cincinnati.
On the Friday of my first week at work, I went out to a smelly bar on “O” street with Carla, who’s another lab tech.
Carla’s all right. On my first day she spilled coffee all over my desk and all the stuff on my desk. At least she didn’t hit the computer. She was blond and everything, you’d think she was this outrageous bimbo, but she just looked at me, grinned, and said, “watch where ya put that computer, Babe.”
I remember thinking: Whatever.
So there we were, at this place on Zero street that had a jukebox. I’m not kidding. It played CDs, but it really was a jukebox. That seems to fit, somehow. My ex-girlfriend Ann, when I told her I was going to Nebraska, told me that there’s nothing to do in these little towns except go to bars if you’re twenty-one, or drive around on the main street if you aren’t. I’d say she was probably dead on.
Carla asked incessant questions about California. You’d think I was from Mars.
“Why’d you pick Lincoln?”
“It’s where the job was. Really.”
“I don’t know, I’ve lived here...” she sighed, looked over my shoulder “...I’ve lived here my whole life. Growing up here, all you want is to get out, go anywhere, go to California, and here you are, you come here on your own.”
“I’ll say. Growing up, my family always took these vacations. You know, family vacations. Yosemite or the Grand Canyon or whatever. Somewhere really beautiful.” She topped off her beer from the pitcher. “And we went skiing, at Christmas. One time, we were driving out to Keystone, and on the way through Denver, it occurred to me that people actually lived there. They lived in this town where sometimes we went on vacation. I guess I had always thought, everyone in the world lives in ugly dull towns like Lincoln, and goes to interesting pretty towns like Denver for vacation, but you know, lots of people live in interesting pretty towns, and never know what dull towns are like at all.”
“I have this aunt in Eugene. Eugene, Oregon. My mom, well she owns this architecture firm, so we didn’t get a lot of vacations, but we drive up the coast a lot, to Point Reyes or Eugene. Once we drove to Seattle. I’ve never been farther east than Bakersfield, but once we went to Hawaii.”
“So Lincoln must seem pretty dull.”
“Yeah, but dull in an adventurous sort of way, I guess...I mean, it’s something new, you know? I live in one of those ‘interesting pretty’ towns, the place is crawling with tourists, but it’s just home to me. Except for college, I never had a chance to...to get out or get away. Lincoln is the most exotic place I’ve ever been.”
“How do you like it so far?” she said, turning her beer around in her hand.
“I don’t know. The people seem all right, but I guess I don’t know many.”
“Are you going to start dating or anything?”
“Beats me. I kinda just got out of a relationship. I think...”
“You were saying you just got out of a relationship and you think—”
“I don’t know what I think. I haven’t thought about women in a long time.”
“Good,” she said, draining off the beer.
After Carla dropped me off at my apartment around midnight, I just fell right asleep on the dingy old couch the last tenants left. I don’t think I was that drunk, just tired, from working all week, meeting people and smiling and pretending like I knew what the hell I was doing.
Sometime very late, I don’t know, two or three, maybe, I woke up thirsty.
Actually, the plumbing started to make a lot of noise, rattling and making gurgling sounds. Someone in one of the apartments next to me must have flushed a toilet or something. That’s probably what woke me up, not the being thirsty part, so forget I said that.
It was awfully dark in the apartment, I almost literally couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, and fabulously hot. But I was pretty thirsty. I just lay on the couch, wondering, should I go get a drink, or should I just lie here? But thirst won out. You don’t realize how hot it can get here, even at night.
I got up, put my hands out in front of me and stumbled forward, very slowly. I didn’t know where to put my feet, I could step on anything down there. Suddenly my feet were on something cold and slick, linoleum. I reached to my left, low, and turned on the oven light. It was just bright enough to see to the sink, where I stood and drank water out of my cupped hands.
There was a school about two blocks from my apartment building, on “G” Street, with a full-sized basketball court. The baskets even had nets. No one ever used it, after school got out sometime in May. One Saturday—I can’t remember the date, probably early June—I put on my UCSC sweats and jogged with the ball down to the court. I stood at the free throw line, in the muggy, hazy sunshine, and put up bad shot after bad shot. I made thirty tries; I must’ve missed twenty shots.
I stopped at a Coastal Mart on the way home and got a Minute Maid OJ, and rubbed the cold box wet with condensation against my forehead, all the way back to my apartment.
Over the weekend of July fourth, I went with Carla to her parents’ cabin on Lake Lewis and Clark, a very large and muddy lake between Nebraska and South Dakota. It wasn’t as hot there as back in Lincoln, or maybe it was just dryer. Nebraska is hot as hell. I’d never been anywhere so hot in my life.
On the fourth, Carla taught me how to water ski, which is pretty easy. I’d seen people do it on TV, and thought, that must be the most difficult thing in the world, staying up on these two little skis while a boat pulls you. But you know, it’s really pretty easy. You just let the boat pull you up, but you don’t let it pull you over. You should try it, if you get the chance.
After I figured out how to keep my legs straight and kind of out in front of me, turning and bumping into waves became actually kind of fun. I’d turn my skis just slightly out to the right or left, and send up a glittery fan of water. What a kill.
That evening, we sat on the edge of the dock and swung our feet in the water. It was suddenly a lot cooler. I had never been water skiing, and if you’ve ever done it, well, it gets a little tiring on the legs and upper body. Carla was rubbing my back, kneading it like bread.
We sat on the dock and drank beer from cans, and watched people shoot fireworks out over the water.
“What do you...I don’t quite know how to say this...” I spent more time with Carla than anyone else in Lincoln, and she was pretty attractive, but I don’t know, she just didn’t do much for me otherwise. Maybe I had too much on my mind. I don’t know. I’m not usually very good with relationship stuff.
“What do you think of...of me, and, um...us?”
“What is this, are we—I mean, are you attracted to me?”
She stopped rubbing my back, and looked out over the water. The kids ran up and down the beach, shouting and lighting fireworks and throwing them along the rocks and water. “Edgar, you’re a sweet guy, but...” She shrugged.
“Yeah, same here.”
It wasn’t even dark yet, it was still pretty light in the west, along where the sky meets the ground. All these kids shot fireworks out over the water, and I thought about the strangeness of Nebraska. All these people who own lake houses here, they only see each other on weekends, but they all had a picnic together, on the beach, roasting hot dogs. And they set off masses of fireworks, over the water. It was like Chinese New Years, only everyone was white and wore baseball caps.
I flew back home on July 11th, a Saturday. My mom was at the airport, smiling ear to ear, not looking straight at me. They put me up near the front on the flight, so I got off early. I don’t think she was expecting that.
“Ed...” she grabbed me and gave me an enormous hug. I didn’t think I’d missed my mom so much, I guess because I never noticed her, growing up. “Your hair’s changed.”
“Yeah, I’m letting it grow out some more.”
She pulled back and wiped off her face, then dug around in her purse for a kleenex. It felt...abnormal, my mother crying. I tried to remember when I last saw her cry.
I got up on Sunday, the next day, but a little later than usual, I suppose, and put on my UCSC sweats, pulled my hair back, and walked down to the Francisco playground to shoot some hoops. The weather was, I don’t know, dry...maybe sixty-five and a little cloudy. In California early in the morning, if you don’t remember what the weather was, it was sixty-five and a little cloudy.
My aim was terrible. If I got fifty percent, I’d be pretty surprised. I must’ve hit the backboard half the time from the free throw line; one shot was just air. I didn’t try from the three point line. Instead, I walked up to Washington Square. I still had the basketball under one arm.
Even on Sunday mornings, all the old Chinese people come here to do Tai Chi, which is like a beautiful slow dance without music. Allen Ginsberg used to come down here and watch them do Tai Chi in the mornings. Now they also do low-impact aerobics.
An old fat white couple wearing cardigans were trying to compose the park, the Peter and Paul church, and the people doing Tai Chi all in one photograph, which I hoped turned out well. They were waving at each other and shouting in German.
I sat on the lawn and thought about those old German people, even after they’d left. Germany must be about 5000 miles away, with better-looking churches than the Peter and Paul, but they still wanted a picture anyway. I was thinking, there probably aren’t any palm trees or Chinese people doing Tai Chi in front of Gothic German cathedrals. I thought that, and a chill ran up my back, across my shoulders. Those people had come 5000 miles to look at other people, not at churches. That’s kind of interesting, isn’t it?
They had Minute Maid at Kee’s, so I bought a quart of it, and some bagels too. I don’t know, I was pretty damn hungry, and I ate on the way home.
Carla came out and picked me up at the airport on the Saturday night I got back. Even from the air I could tell that Lincoln would be humid, probably even more than usual. The clouds hung down almost to the runway, and it was raining.
“There was a murder in your apartment building,” she said, when we were in the car, damp and smelling like deodorant and wet clothing.
“Anyone I know?”
“Nah, I don’t think so. Well, what apartment are you in?”
“Hmmm.” She cranked the wheel around. “I guess it was your neighbor, then. I don’t remember her name.”
“Was it Wilma Robinson?”
“Yeah, that sounds right.”
“Go figure,” I said, watching the rain moving in rivers down the driveways and into the gutters. “Go figure.”
We got roaring drunk that night, I don’t know why. You don’t pay much for beer in Nebraska, so it’s easy to get drunk, without trying. We just kept going from one bar to another, and Carla kept running into all these people she knew. She does seem like a very popular person, now that I think about it. Eventually I had to sort of carry her to the next bar. The rain had become a mist, steaming off of our sticky clothes. The actual sequence of events began to get a little muddy. I remember getting very angry at someone, and later sometime, kissing Carla and laughing. I remember a scotch and soda that a tall, freckly brunette bought for me. I remember Carla teasing me about her, saying something about “charm.” Only she said it with a lengthy drawl, Southern or British maybe: “Chahm,” and she laughed and laughed.
I drove back to my place, because Carla was in no condition to drive. Neither was I, for that matter, but my condition was still vertical. I kept my left wheels as near to the lane line as I could, hoping we wouldn’t see any cops.
We fell asleep listening to Van Morrison, in my living room, curled up around each other on the floor like spoons.
I woke up sober around three a.m. to the sound of Carla bumping around the kitchen, clinking glasses and running the water. My neck was stiff, tight from sleeping on the floor. And I was pretty thirsty. You know how it is after you drink too much beer. You get thirsty. And it was still hot like a sauna in my apartment. My head hurt.
I got up and walked into the kitchen, smacked right into Carla in the spinning darkness, making her spill water down the front of her shirt.
“Shit, Ed, you made me spill, bastard.” She was being funny, not mean.
“Move it.” I edged up to the sink, pressing the side of my body against Carla. I ran water over my hands. “I am so damn thirsty.”
I could hear Carla swallow the last of her water and set the glass down. I felt the weighted air move as Carla turned against the side of my body. I cupped my hands, filled them with water, bent right over the sink and drank the water running straight out of the faucet. She said something, but I couldn’t hear her over the running water.
Jesus, was I ever thirsty.