"The Lamp" by Scott Olsson
The lamp wasn’t quite old enough to qualify as an antique or rare enough to be special to anyone but Jade O’Leary. It was from the late fifties or early sixties. The base was a wooden box with an oval glass panel on each side. The etching on the glass threw abstract designs when the two small bulbs on fake candlesticks inside were switched on, and above the base was one bulb and a very standard lampshade of no special distinction that was most certainly several hues dingier than it had started out. The wooden box had a line of gold paint that traced the edges. The paint was chipped in several places. The lamp had sat on the end table next to her grandfather’s chair and had been the only thing she had wanted when he died. Her heroin-addicted cousin had taken it and sold it.
Her grandfather’s funeral had been the week before. The family was meeting today to go through the house. It wasn’t yet noon and her mother was already drunk. Aunt Georgia wanted anything of any value. Aunt Kate just sat on the couch crying quietly. Uncle Jack just looked like he didn’t want to be there. Jade didn’t want to be there either. She had just wanted to get the lamp and get out as quickly as she could, without looking like she was getting out as quickly as she could.
Unfortunately, the lamp, along with anything else that could fit in the backseat or trunk of a battered old Chevy Cavalier, was missing. It had taken a moment for Jade to realize what had happened. Her cousin Marshall must have gotten there before everyone and had taken whatever he could fit in his car. He didn’t have access to a truck, or able-bodied friends, so he hadn’t taken any furniture, but her grandfather’s watch, his wedding band, his Mason’s ring, the clock from the living room wall, the television, the “good” china, and the lamp were gone. There were probably other things missing too, but those were the ones Jade definitely couldn’t accord for. He must have gotten too tired, or paranoid, from carrying his spoils to the car to rip the copper pipes out of the basement.
Her mother went to the kitchen and poured herself more gin from wherever she had stashed the bottle. Her Aunt Georgia mumbled something towards Jade, who had expressed exactly what she thought of Aunt Georgia’s opiate-addled spawn when she discovered the lamp was missing. Uncle Jack subtly shifted his position like he wanted to be able to get between Jade and Aunt Georgia in case Jade decided to throw a left hook into her aunt’s jaw. That gave Jade a slight internal smile. Jack had never been an asshole to her; he was just polite and distant. Maybe he wasn’t as racist as Aunt Georgia and Aunt Kate, or maybe he just had better manners and self-control. She didn’t hate him, but it was funny he thought he would be fast enough to get in the way if she decided to put Aunt Georgia to sleep with her fists.
Jade’s grandfather had been the only one besides her drunk-ass mother she considered family. The rest of them ranged from being distant to treating her with contempt, all because her father was black. She was the little cappuccino-colored girl that didn’t belong in their pasty-white Irish family. Except her grandfather. He loved her with a fierce protectiveness that felt like her only safety in the world—a world she was never quite at home in. He had been an amateur boxer in his younger days and had taught her to fight. Later she had added some Muay Thai and Ju-Jitsu.
Jade sat down on her grandfather’s chair and looked at the empty spot on the table. There was still an outline of the lamp in the faint layer of dust on the table. She felt stupid for doing it, but she tried to imagine what her grandfather would say to her in this situation. He would probably tell her to get off her ass and go find it. Tears welled up in her eyes. She stood up quickly and brushed past her mother, moving towards the door.
“Where you going?” her mother slurred after her.
Jade replied with a good solid slam of the door as she stepped onto the front porch. She hurried down the ancient concrete steps to the sidewalk and down the street to where her car was parked. It was June and there was already the smell of warm asphalt tinged with a slight hint of creosote from the telephone poles on the air. She got in her beat-up Civic and closed the door. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. When she opened them again, she glanced in the mirror to make sure none of the people she had the misfortune of being related to had emerged from the house in an effort to talk to her. They hadn’t.
The streets of North Braddock looked as if they had been shelled by small artillery, and the Civic rattled as she made her way down the hill into East Pittsburgh. She pulled into the alley behind Aunt Georgia’s house and parked the car. She got out and closed the door quietly, leaning against it to make it click shut. The gate squeaked when she opened it. The house was built on a slope, and the door to the basement, where Marshall lived, was about ten steps from the gate.
Jade put her hand on the knob and turned it slowly. It wasn’t locked. She pushed the door open and slipped inside. There were curtains over the basement windows, and it took a couple of seconds for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. Except for the sectioned-off laundry room, most of the basement was Marshall’s disorderly abode. Jade looked around but didn’t see the lamp or any of the other missing items. What she did see was a mess of random debris and Marshall asleep in a bed pushed against the wall to the left. The place smelled slightly of death and pharmaceuticals. She walked over, being careful of where she placed her feet. She kicked the bed hard. Marshall’s head rolled and his eyes may have flickered, but he resisted wakefulness. She kicked the bed again. He opened his eyes. She stared at him. His temples were hollow and his eyes a little sunken.
“What are you?” he asked hoarsely.
She thought it was pretty clear she wasn’t his fairy godmother, so she figured he was trying to ask what she was doing there. “Where’s the lamp you took from grand-pap’s house?” she asked, trying to keep her voice calm and level.
Marshall closed his eyes and grunted. Jade forced herself to control her breathing. She wanted to just beat it out of him, but her grandfather had a saying: Always try to do it the right way first.
“Look, I’m not mad at you,” she lied. “I will pay you more for it than any pawn shop is going to give you for it.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
“Yes, you do. I just want the lamp. If you have it, I will pay you for it. If you don’t, just please tell me where you sold it, so I can go buy it from them.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Jade took two twenties out of her pocket and held them up.
“Forty dollars. Where’s the lamp?”
Marshall opened his eyes and confirmed that the rustling sound had indeed been currency. “I sold it at a place in McKeesport.”
“What’s the name of the place?”
“I don’t know,” Marshall sighed.
“Where is it?” Jade asked, trying and failing to keep the impatience out of her voice.
“Downtown. By the Chinese restaurant.”
Jade dropped the money on the bed and left, closing the door quietly behind her.
Downtown McKeesport had been prosperous once. That was before Jade was born. The buildings that had been a thriving commercial district in her grandfather’s day now housed things like methadone clinics, sketchy Chinese restaurants, and junk shops falsely advertising themselves as antique stores.
The place was crowded with merchandise—none of it truly antique, some of it mid-century modern, a lot of it just plain junk, and all of it a little dusty. The proprietor looked like he might be a dusty antique himself.
Jade walked down the aisle between the glass counter covered with various items including three lamps, none of which were the object of her quest, to the left and the various merchandise crowding in from the right. The old man was sitting behind the counter about halfway down the room. There was a clear space of counter in front of him and a cash register to his left. He was a small man, with silver hair and plenty of it, for his age. He wore a gray, buttoned shirt with no tie. His skin had the waxy, unnatural look that old people sometimes get. His eyes were alert but looked like they didn’t want to be.
“What can I help you with?” he asked, with a voice that sounded like someone had choked him too hard one time.
“I’m looking for a lamp,” Jade said, glancing around the store, trying to determine if there were any other groupings of lamps amongst the flotsam and jetsam.
The old man turned his eyes towards the lamps on the counter without moving his head and brought them back to her with a wooden face. Jade turned and looked at the lamps and back at the old man.
“Actually I was looking for a specific lamp,” she said.
The old man’s raised eyebrows communicated that he didn’t bother to stock specific lamps. Jade sighed.
“My cousin took my grandfather’s old lamp and some other stuff from his house and sold it. I was thinking he might have sold it here. I just want to buy it back.”
The old man contemplated her for a few seconds.
“Tall, skinny guy?” he asked.
“Wooden base with glass panels?”
“Yeah, he brought it in here. Someone bought it already.”
Jade stared at him with a dumb look while she felt a piece of herself silently float away. She turned around and walked back out of the store. The sunlight was blinding. She sat down on ground with her back against the side of the building and cried.
“Hey, uh, are you okay?” a soft voice asked.
Jade looked up. A woman was standing in front of her. She looked to be in her mid-twenties. She had black hair, part of it dyed purple. She wore black pants and a black tank top. Her arms were covered in high-quality tattoos, some of which indicated she was probably a fan of classic horror films. There was also a small number thirteen behind her ear, but the flowers inked on her chest, her distinctly Caucasian origin, and her compassionate eyes gave Jade the impression that the number did not mean she was in Mara Salvatrucha.
“Yeah,” Jade said, wiping the tears from her eyes, “I mean no, I’m not, but . . .”
The woman frowned and looked at Jade like she didn’t want to just leave her there, crying in the parking lot.
“I’m just upset that my junkie cousin sold my dead grandfather’s lamp here and someone bought it before I could buy it back,” Jade said indicating the store behind her with her thumb. “Now it’s gone.”
The woman knelt down on the ground next to Jade and put out her hand. “My name’s Courtney,” she said.
Jade shook her hand. “Jade.”
“I come here a lot and I know the old man. It’s a long shot, but I could talk to him and see if it was a regular customer who bought it. I might even know them. I mean the odds aren’t good, but it won’t cost anything for me to try,” the woman said with a soft kindness in her voice.
Jade started to cry again and just nodded.
“Stay right there,” Courtney said and went around the corner of the building.
Jade concentrated on controlling her breathing. It was a kind gesture, but she felt hollow and couldn’t actually bring herself to hope that this strange woman could find out who had the lamp. She sat for probably five minutes and had just gotten up to go look into the store when Courtney came back around the corner of the building. She had small, sly smile on her face.
“Well, I know who bought it. Sort of,” Courtney said.
Jade just looked at her with her mouth slightly open.
“His name is Emmett, and he’s a cranky old bastard,” she chuckled.
“How?” was all Jade managed to get out.
“Oh, the old man told me. He can come off a little aloof to strangers, but he has a heart of gold. I’ve been coming here for years, and he’s taken a shine to me. Anyhow, the guy that bought the lamp comes in here every Sunday morning, according to the old man. I’ve seen him plenty of times. He isn’t very friendly though. I say hi to him and he just scowls at me and nods. Probably disapproves of girls with tattoos and nose rings. Anyhow, I don’t know if you will get anywhere with him, but you could run into him here tomorrow if you want to try. He is old, bald on top, little bit of white hair. Usually wears a plaid shirt with overalls.”
“Name’s Emmett, wears plaid and overalls,” Jade repeated.
“Yep,” said Courtney.
“I don’t even know what to say,” Jade stammered.
“It’s no trouble,” Courtney said.
Jade hugged her with all her strength, which was considerable. Courtney squeaked, and they both laughed.
“Thank you,” Jade said.
“I like to help,” Courtney said and went back into the store.
Jade sat on the wooden porch of the run-down house on South Bouquet Street where she rented the first floor and stared into her green tea. All she had wanted was the old lamp that used to sit on the table beside her grandfather’s chair in the very average little house in North Braddock, the only place she had ever belonged. She didn’t know why it was the lamp that she needed or why the lamp would make her feel connected. Why not the chair? Or the coffee pot? Maybe it was because the lamp sat on the table between her and the man who had raised her while her mother was out getting drunk. It had always been right there on the end table between his chair and where she would sit on the couch. When she pictured her grandfather in her mind, the lamp was in the picture too. All she had wanted was the lamp, but once again her family had found a new way to let her down.
She swallowed the rest of her green tea and went inside to change. She had to be at work at the university library in an hour, and there wasn’t anything more she could do until tomorrow. Jade set her teacup on the kitchen counter and went into her bedroom. As she pulled her shirt up over her head and threw it in the hamper, she thought about how to approach this Emmett guy if he did indeed show up tomorrow.
“Always try to do it the right way first,” she said to herself.
It was already warm when Jade opened one eye to look at the cheap clock radio on her nightstand. It was half past eight. She had worked till the library closed at midnight and had sat on the porch thinking until going to bed at almost two. The birds were chirping incessantly somewhere near her window. She stretched and got out of bed. Breakfast was yogurt and two cups of green tea.
Jade showered and put on a tight black tank top with a very short plaid skirt that showed off plenty of leg and looked at herself in the mirror. She hiked the skirt up a little higher. She was willing to sex it up a little to get the lamp back. Hell, she was willing to sex it up a lot more, if that’s what it took. Emmett might be too old to be interested, but she figured she should be prepared.
The stray cat that lived in the neighborhood meowed something sassy at Jade as she pulled the front door closed and bounced down the porch steps. She got in her car and checked the time. Plenty of time to get to the store before it opened at ten, even if there was traffic.
There was no traffic and Jade had been parked down the street from the so-called antique shop for fifteen minutes when the old man unlocked the front door at five after ten. There was no way of knowing when Emmett would get there, but her intuition was that he would be an early bird. She checked her purse. Two hundred dollars in twenties. She checked her hair in the rearview mirror. It looked good. She smelled pleasantly of cocoa butter. Her skirt showed all of her toned legs, and if she bent over everyone was going to get a show. She figured she wouldn’t have much trouble crying, if necessary. She was ready to come at her opponent from different angles.
The denizens of McKeesport went about their tired business while Jade waited and watched. A sullen young man walked a pit bull. A sleepy girl crossed the street and went into the laundromat. A girl still in what appeared to be last night’s stripper outfit was let out of a car driven by a muscular man with a greasy ponytail. She stumbled across the sidewalk like she was still drunk and managed to get a key into an apartment door. An old woman walked down the street, went into the convenience store, came out, and walked back up the street.
A pickup truck that looked like you might be able to trade it in for a used ten-speed without having to kick in too much cash rolled into the parking lot next to the antique shop and came to a stop. No one got out. Jade shook her head. She could never figure out what took people so long to get out of their vehicles. She would put the car in park with her right hand while opening the door to get out with her left. After what felt like ten minutes, but was closer to sixty seconds, Emmett got out of the truck.
He fit the description perfectly—bald on top, what little hair was there was white, plaid shirt, overalls. He walked with a slight limp over to the door of the store and shuffled inside. Jade had decided to wait until he came back out of the store to approach him. She had struggled with the decision. She didn’t really want the proprietor as an audience, but she wasn’t sure if Emmett would react better in front of the old man or by himself in the parking lot. She thought he might be more inclined to take pity on her when she explained what had happened if the old man behind the counter was watching; however, if she had to use her sex appeal, it would work better if it was just the two of them. On the other hand, maybe the old man behind the counter would think it was odd if she came in and asked Emmett if she could buy the lamp back and he would say something to Emmett that would sour the situation. She also didn’t want to get Courtney in trouble with the old man. She over-thought it from every angle and decided to wait till he came back out.
Jade sat and watched the front door without taking her eyes off it. She wasn’t worried about Emmett getting away. She could probably run around the block twice before he could shuffle back to his truck and get in. It was just that she just had laser focus when she wanted something very badly, and she wanted the lamp back very badly. Minutes passed. She flicked her eyes to the clock on the dashboard. It had been ten minutes since Emmett went in. She considered the possibility that he spent hours in the store every Sunday looking over the exact same stuff or chatting with the old man about how things had been better in their day. She decided she would give it some time, but at some point she would take it as a sign from the universe that she should go talk to him inside.
The smell of concrete and dirt that floated on the air and for some reason made Jade think of the time when she was a little girl and her cousins had told her that her hair was ugly because her dad was black. She had walked all the way down to where the train tracks ran underneath the Westinghouse Bridge and sat on the retaining wall overlooking the creek for hours. It had the same smell. Her grandfather had eventually walked down and found her. He hadn’t said a word, just reached his hand down and helped her up. They walked back home in silence, and that was the day he took her to the basement and started teaching her to box.
Jade looked at the clock and realized she had been remembering for a good twenty minutes. So much for her laser focus. She had been looking at the store the entire time but had to look at Emmett’s truck just to confirm she hadn’t reminisced right through him leaving. She sighed and unscrewed the cap of her aluminum water bottle and took a drink. She was putting the cap back on when Emmett came out of the store. Her heart jumped. She put the water bottle down in the cup holder and got out of the car.
Traffic cooperated and she was across the street before Emmett even turned the corner of the building. He took no notice of her until she was a few steps from him. She put on her best smile.
“Excuse me, sir. Is your name Emmett?” she asked.
He stopped and looked at her with what looked like apprehension with a dash of disdain. Up close she could see he had a deeply lined, pale face and his overalls were flecked with paint like he had recently been doing some work.
“Yeah,” he said.
“I thought it might be,” she said, tilting her head slightly and trying to be as charming as she knew how. “You see, my grandfather just passed away and my cousin sold some of his things here, and there was a lamp I would really like to buy back. A friend of mine described the man who bought it and told me his name was Emmett, so I was just stopping by the shop to see if I could somehow find you and offer to buy the lamp back, when I saw you coming out of the store.”
Emmett’s apprehension with a dash of disdain turned to confusion with a pinch of belligerence.
“I already bought that lamp,” he said.
Yes, I think I covered that fact in my previous sentence, she thought, but she kept smiling as pleasantly as she ever had in her life.
“Yes, sir, I know you bought it. I don’t know how much you paid for it, but I will pay you double whatever you paid for it.”
He pulled back with an expression like her suggestion made no sense and started to shuffle towards his truck. Jade moved to keep alongside him.
“Please, sir, it’s all I have left from my grandfather, and my junkie cousin sold it for probably just a couple bucks. I’ll give you two hundred,” she said, the words coming quickly. “It couldn’t have cost you more than ten.”
Emmett continued to shuffle towards his truck, completely impervious to the offer of twenty times what the lamp was worth. Somehow Jade had imagined having time to work different angles if Emmett didn’t go for the money, but he seemed determined to get in the truck as fast as his arthritic legs would carry him. He got to the truck and fumbled around in his pockets for his keys. Jade stood close to him, leaning against the door of the truck, so that he would have to knock her out of the way with the door to get rid of her. It seemed to unsettle Emmett. He stood there staring at her with his keys in his hand and a scowl on his face.
“Don’t you want to make a young lady very happy?” she asked with as much honey as she could put in her voice.
Emmett made a tiny motion towards the lock with his key and then stopped, looking somewhat flustered. Jade hoped her charm was flustering him, but it might have just been a reluctance to hit her with the door. She lowered her head slightly and smiled beguilingly with an up-from-under look and a slight flutter of the eyelashes. Emmett frowned and took a half-step backwards.
Not good, she thought. So she did what she usually did when something didn’t work. She hit harder.
“I could come back to your place with you and maybe convince you to sell me the lamp,” she said trying to sound naughty, her left hand playing with her skirt, lifting it slightly.
Emmett’s white brows came together in an angry scowl.
“Maybe if it was twenty years ago,” he said, “and you were white.”
Jade took a step back as if she had been hit, except if she had actually been hit she wouldn’t have taken a step back, she would have walked through it. She blinked several times and stood there staring at Emmett with a blank expression on her face. He took the opportunity to shove his key in the lock and open the door, swinging it open a few inches from her face. The sound of the door slamming closed sounded like a muffled gunshot.
The truck backed out of the space and swung right. Jade just stood there watching as Emmett shifted into first, and the old Ford labored out of the parking lot and turned right. Jade was about to sit down and cry in the parking lot for the second time in two days, but an idea stirred in the back of her mind.
She ran across the street, unlocked her car and jumped in. She was facing the opposite way Emmett had left. She waited for a car to pass going the other direction and then swung her car around, barely missing the opposite curb, which was one of the old slate ones that surely would have cut her tire. She accelerated hard and caught a glimpse of the truck as it turned right a couple blocks ahead.
Fortunately, there was no other traffic as Jade rolled two stop signs to catch up. When she turned right, she could see Emmett’s truck trundling up the hill. She closed the distance a little more but didn’t get right up behind him. The street turned left at the top of the hill, where the ruins of the business district gave way to the residential neighborhoods that had very little life left in them yet refused to die. Old steel towns are like fighters who have been hit too many times to know they’ve been hit too many times.
Jade had to slow down to keep a little distance. Emmett was one of those people that took stop signs a bit too literally. They were moving up Versailles Avenue, one of the main streets in McKeesport, and it was damn near impossible to drive as slow as Emmett was. Jade started to panic for a second, thinking that he had seen her and that was why he was driving so slowly, but there was no way. He had been a couple blocks away when she had gotten in her car, and it would be very unlikely he saw her. He would have had no other way of knowing what kind of car she drove. She had put her sunglasses on. It wasn’t easy to distinguish people in the car behind you, especially when all he would had was the side mirror, what with the cap on the back and all the junk preventing him from using the rearview mirror. He probably paid absolutely no attention to whoever was behind him anyhow; he just drove this slow because old people drive slow.
They continued to climb the hill until Emmett signaled and turned right one block before the crest. Jade slowed and turned right, following him. He went two blocks, turned left, and parked alongside the house on the corner. Jade turned right and went half a block before pulling over and watching in the rearview mirror. Emmett got out of his truck without looking her direction or giving any sign of having seen her. He shuffled over to the gate in the wooden fence behind the house, opened it, and disappeared. Jade waited a few minutes, then looped around the block, taking note of the address.
Emmett’s was a nondescript frame house on the corner of a block of similar, forlorn houses. It was painted white, with a garage in the back. The wooden fence ran from the back of the house, down both sides of the backyard. The one-car garage, which opened to the side street, took up about half the lot. The tiny yard contained one scraggly spruce tree, its lower branches cut off.
Jade wondered if Emmett parked the truck on the street because the garage was full of junk. Maybe the lamp was in there. Could this guy be such a pack rat that he would buy the lamp just to put it in the garage, then refuse to sell it for two hundred dollars? Maybe it was in the house. Maybe his old lamp quit working and he just needed a new lamp. Two hundred dollars would have bought him several lamps, enough paint to turn that truck all one color again, and a decent shirt. Could he really be that enamored with the lamp? Was it out of pure obstinacy that he refused to sell the lamp? Or did he just hate her without knowing her, enough to keep the lamp just to spite her?
“Yeah, well, I tried to do it the right way first,” Jade said as she drove back to Oakland.
There was a slight, cool breeze the next morning carrying the smell of cut grass as Jade drove past Emmett's house. The truck was parked beside the house in the same spot as the day before. The garage door was open. She slowed as she drove past to look inside. It wasn’t filled with junk; there was room for a vehicle and some shelves in the back with what appeared to be a lot of cans of paint. It certainly wasn’t the garage of the kind of guy that hoards all kinds of junk and fills the place floor to ceiling. So the lamp was probably in the house.
Jade circled the block and parked as far down the street as she could while still being able to see the front of Emmett’s house and the side where the truck was parked. She shut the car off and sighed. Maybe the old bastard goes out the same time every day. Or maybe he only leaves the house on Sundays. The breeze moved the leaves on the tree above her. It had grown between the street and the sidewalk and the roots had broken the sidewalk and pushed it up at angle steep enough she doubted Emmett could shuffle over it. A stray dog sniffed around the tree and wandered off.
The gate opened and Emmett emerged from the yard, in his uniform of overalls and a plaid shirt. He made his way around the truck to the driver’s side and looked around. The ridiculous thought that he was looking around for her entered Jade’s head. He probably doesn’t even remember yesterday and probably can’t see this far even if he does, the logical part of her brain countered. He probably wouldn’t even recognize her today in her leggings and plain t-shirt, with her hair pulled back. Hell, he probably just forgot where he was for a second.
Emmett recovered from his momentary confusion and made a project out of climbing into the truck. The engine coughed to life and then nothing. People who take forever to get out of their vehicles also take forever to get going once they are in them. Jade sank lower in her seat, for no good reason, and waited.
Finally, he put the truck in gear and turned down the alley behind the garage. Jade frowned. The garage door was still open. She looked at the clock on the dash and forced herself to wait five minutes. Nothing happened. Emmett didn’t come back. The stray dog didn’t come back. The steel industry didn’t come back. Jade grabbed a religious pamphlet she had picked up off somebody’s porch the night before and got out of the car.
She crossed the street to the same side as Emmett’s house and walked down the block. She strolled slowly past the open garage and looked inside—nothing but shelves of paint cans, a few random tools, and a couple boxes not big enough for lamp to be in. All in all, it was a fairly clean, organized garage, and the lamp was definitely not in it. It seemed a little strange to leave your garage standing open in that kind of neighborhood, but then again, the residents of McKeesport weren’t likely to steal the paint to improve the look of their homes.
Jade stopped at the end of the garage and looked down the alley. It was narrow, and the asphalt was cracked and busted up to the point that weeds were coming up through it in a few places. It ran the length of the block. Emmett’s truck was nowhere to be seen. Jade looked around. She didn’t see anybody watching. She walked back towards the gate and could see that the back door of the house was closed. She looked around again and opened the gate. It squeaked louder than she would have liked, but nobody poked their head out a window and yelled.
The little yard was mostly bereft of grass. Roots from the tired spruce tree veined the ground, which was mostly hard packed dirt and dead needles. Jade shut the gate behind her. The wooden fence was about shoulder height and provided some cover. Over the fence on the opposite side of the yard was the blank side wall of the neighboring house. There was a small concrete stoop with three steps. The back door was closed.
Jade stepped quickly across the yard and up the steps. She wanted to get a look at the lock on the door, which wouldn’t take but a few seconds. If somebody in the house came to the door, she would hold up the pamphlet and ask if they had a minute to talk about the Bible. Whoever it might be, it wouldn’t be Emmett since he had just left, and it seemed unlikely that they would bother to give a detailed description of her if they mentioned the visit from the Jehovah’s Witness at all. She wondered if Emmett would even connect an incident to her if they did give a description. The incident outside the junk emporium could be completely gone from his memory, or he could be going around telling anyone who would listen about the crazy girl who was harassing him about a lamp he bought the day before. There was the danger that someone Emmett was friends with would walk past, spot her, and mention it to him, although it seemed unlikely he had friends. She would be quick and act casual.
She opened the screen door and made a knocking motion with her hand but didn’t actually knock, in case someone was watching from further away. It was unnecessary because the tree and the garage blocked the view of anyone who wasn’t on the sidewalk or the street. She bent over and peered at the lock. She had spent a few hours reading about lock picking the night before and ordered a lock pick gun online. She wanted to know what kind of lock she was going to have to pick, so she could practice on a similar one. There was no manufacturer name on it, but it looked old and fairly standard. She straightened back up and looked around. All clear. For whatever reason, she reached out and turned the door knob. It turned. She pushed gently. The door opened an inch; Emmett hadn’t locked his door.
Jade pulled the door closed and slowly let go of the knob. She looked around. Still clear. She had intended for today’s trip to be simply reconnaissance. She had just wanted to know the kind of lock and if there was anyone else in the house. But then Emmett left his door unlocked. She hesitated, balanced on a knife edge. Emmett didn’t seem like the kind of guy to leave the door unlocked unless someone else was home, but who knows? Maybe he was getting forgetful. Who else might live with him? She had done a little online research last night and hadn’t been able to find anyone else listed at the address, but she knew that didn’t always mean anything. There could be a Mrs. Emmett. She couldn’t imagine Emmett putting up with an adult son or daughter living in his house. The only other thing that she had discovered was that Emmett owned four other properties in the immediate vicinity, all of them bought cheap. She figured good old Emmett was a slumlord.
Jade’s hand went up to knock on the door. She hesitated. If a Mrs. Emmett did answer, should she play the Jehovah’s Witness card and be satisfied with the intelligence gained, like feigning a punch to see what your opponent’s reaction was? If there was a Mrs. Emmett, she might be the sort that never leaves the house, which would make her whole plan a little difficult to execute. Maybe she should go ahead and offer Mrs. Emmett two hundred dollars for the lamp. It could work. Emmett would probably be madder than hell when he found out, but it wouldn’t matter and there would be no way for him to find her. Or it might not work. Then Mrs. Emmett would certainly tell him, and he would then know that she knew where he lived. She knocked on the door.
Nothing happened. Somewhere a dog barked. She waited. A car came down the street and the driver paid her no mind. Jade consciously controlled her breathing and knocked again, louder. Still nothing happened. She contemplated how long it would take for a theoretical Mrs. Emmett to get from upstairs to the back door. She waited a little longer. Still nothing. She put the pamphlet in her pocket and opened the door.
It was the kitchen. The light was off, but enough light came in through the window for Jade to see that Emmett’s kitchen was very clean and three decades out of style. She eased the screen door closed behind her and stood just inside, listening. She didn’t hear anything but the hum from the refrigerator. She looked back out through the screen door and didn’t see anything but the empty yard. She closed the door as quietly as possible and crept across the kitchen floor. There was a doorway straight ahead and one to the right, just past the refrigerator.
Through the doorway, the front door was visible, along with the railing for the stairs going up on the left and a sliver of the living room. Jade peeked around the refrigerator. There was a dining room through the other doorway, with a very standard-issue dining room table from the seventies and a china closet that Jade had to admit looked like it was a pretty nice piece. The lights were off in both rooms and the whole place smelled clean but stuffy.
She moved carefully into the dining room, not touching anything. She had planned to bring gloves when she was actually ready to pick the lock, steal the lamp, and get back out without leaving a trace. She hadn’t anticipated Emmett leaving the door unlocked, but one must seize the opportunities that present themselves. There were random papers and some unopened mail on the dining room table, along with a screwdriver and a package of ant traps. The china closet contained a complete set of china that may or may not have been worth something, some sort of award from the VFW, a bottle of Bushmills, and some dust. There was a credenza along the wall to the left with more papers piled on it and two old radios. No knickknacks. There was nothing on the walls—no cheap prints, no family pictures, nothing to indicate the existence of a Mrs. Emmett.
Jade eased between the table and the credenza and through the arch into the living room. Her eyes scanned the room and didn’t find the lamp. There was a lamp, but it wasn’t her grandfather’s lamp. It was a floor lamp with amber-colored glass shades over each of the three bulbs. There was a couch with a cover on it, a threadbare recliner with an old end table next to it, and a monstrous old television. No pictures adorned on the walls, just a big, plain clock that looked like the ones that hung in every elementary school classroom. A bitter life went on here.
Jade looked at the stairs. There was a door under the stairs that would lead down to the basement. She walked softly to the bottom of the stairs and looked up. There were no lights on upstairs. She listened. The clock ticked. A car drove past on the front street. She started up the stairs as quietly as she could. The third stair creaked with what seemed to Jade to be the decibel level of a drunk driver plowing into a row of parked cars. She froze. The clock ticked on, indifferently.
Well, fuck it then, she thought and quickly ascended the stairs, no longer trying to be silent. At the top of the stairs, there was an open door. Inside the room, all manner of junk was piled on a big set of wooden shelves that took up all of one wall, and on top of two metal filing cabinets. There was a sturdy wooden table, and on it, the lamp.
Jade stepped quickly into the room and knelt down beside the table, trying to reach to unplug the lamp without touching anything else. She laughed quietly at herself. Seemed unlikely the McKeesport police were going to dust for prints when Emmett called and said his house had been burgled and the only thing taken was a lamp he had bought for five dollars. They would probably think he was losing his mind. She managed to reach the plug and pulled it out. It’s not like her fingerprints were on file anyway.
She bunched the cord up in her hand and picked up the lamp with the other hand. She looked it over quickly. It was in the same shape she had last seen it. At least Emmett hadn’t damaged it. The third stair creaked again on the way back down.
Light filtered through the three diamond-shaped glass panels in the front door, catching the dust particles floating in the air. Jade turned right to go back through the kitchen and out. Her heart beat a little faster. She had done it. She had stolen the lamp back like a ninja and would be gone without a trace. She hoped the police thought it was dementia and called someone to put the racist bastard in a home when he called them insisting someone had stolen his lamp.
When she was about three steps from it, the back door opened.
Jade froze. She felt the surge of adrenaline but didn’t panic. She was going to be seen, but there was no reason she couldn’t get away. She still had her anonymity, as long as no one got her license plate. She couldn’t imagine the police blocking all the roads and sending up the chopper. What was Emmett going to say? What was she going to say? Where had he been and why was he back so soon? She had all these thoughts in the second between the door opening and Emmett stepping into the kitchen.
He looked confused. Jade turned around and made haste for the front door, careful not to bang the lamp on anything.
“Hey!” Emmett snarled behind her.
She got to the front door and turned the knob with her left hand, holding the lamp carefully with the right. It was locked. She fumbled with the lock and turned the knob again. The door still didn’t open. She could hear Emmett’s footsteps shuffling through the kitchen. He was mumbling something and she was pretty sure she heard a racial slur and the word bitch. She looked up. Deadbolt. She slid the deadbolt and turned the knob again. It still didn’t open. She realized the lock on the knob had been unlocked the first time and she had locked it. She turned it back and turned the knob when a hand grabbed her by the back of the neck.
Part of her brain was astonished the old bastard had such a strong grip. Another part was registering the pain. Yet another part was busy reacting. She reached out and set the lamp on the end table as gently as she could with her limited mobility. Emmett tightened his grip even more. Once the lamp was safely on the table, Jade twisted left and dropped at the same time. Her neck slipped from Emmett’s grip. Thumbs can only be so strong. She popped back up in fighting stance and unloaded on Emmett’s jaw with a right cross. He dropped sideways and hit the floor with a thud, completely limp.
Blood rushed in Jade’s ears. She bounced on the balls of her feet, hands still up and ready. Emmett didn’t move. He lay on his back, eyes wide open, mouth hanging open. He was looking up at the ceiling and he looked kind of shocked. Jade stopped bouncing and put her hands down slowly. She had scored a couple technical knockouts in amateur fights, but in both cases the other girl had been knocked down and the referee had stopped the fight. She had knocked out a guy that had groped her once. He had hit the ground unconscious but had come around in just a few seconds. Emmett looked like he was still out, and staring at the ceiling. A lot of people don’t realize that the eyes stay open when someone gets knocked out. But Emmett’s didn’t look quite right. The clock on the wall ticked. Jade took several deep breaths. She looked at the clock, then back at Emmett.
“Hell, it wasn’t that good of a punch,” she whispered.
Emmett’s body tensed for several seconds, then relaxed, and a small choking sound came out of his throat. His jaw went slack; his eyes were unfocused.
Jade cursed the universe and whatever gods might be running it.
The clock continued to tick. Jade knelt down and felt for a pulse, just to make sure. No pulse. She stood back up. There was no way the impact of that punch killed him. His head didn’t even hit the floor first, his shoulder did. He must have had a heart attack. She looked at his jaw. It might be a little swollen but not terribly so. She stood back up. It wouldn’t be glaringly obvious he had been hit. She thought she remembered that swelling around the jaw was a symptom of a heart attack anyhow. Whoever found him would have no reason to suspect that his heart attack was precipitated by a punch to the jaw from a young lady who was burglarizing his house for the sole purpose of stealing a lamp worth probably five bucks. If they found evidence of injury, it would probably be attributed to him falling.
Jade stood looking at Emmett. Being by oneself with a dead body is a special kind of loneliness. His death made things simple. Still, she would have preferred not to have killed him. She wondered why she didn’t feel more. She wasn’t happy about it, but she knew she wasn’t going to be lying awake at night, seeing ghosts. She was a little resentful. The old bastard could have just sold her the lamp. Then this wouldn’t have happened.
Jade walked into the kitchen and picked up the dish towel on the counter. She went back into the living room and wiped the door knob and the deadbolt lock. She picked up the lamp from the end table.
“I tried to do it the right way,” she said to Emmett’s corpse.
She went back through the kitchen, and wiped the door knob on the back door. She was about to throw the dish towel back on the counter, then changed her mind. Why take chances with DNA?
She left through the back door, leaving it open, carrying the lamp in one hand, and the dish towel in the other. She stopped at the gate and looked up and down the street. Two juvenile delinquent sorts were walking down the street on the opposite side. She waited for them to pass and opened the gate. She walked quickly towards her car. She imagined witnesses looking out of windows, seeing her, and thinking a young lady carrying a lamp to be so suspicious that they took down her license plate number.
Jade laid the lamp gently on its side on the back seat. She threw the dish towel on the passenger seat and sat behind the wheel. She took a deep breath, started the car, and drove away. As she was waiting to make the left onto Versailles Avenue, she saw the stray dog sniffing the rear tire of a parked car. She threw the dish towel out the window somewhere in Forest Hills.
Jade sat on her loveseat, her legs curled beneath her, and sipped her green tea. It had been four days since she had recovered the lamp. The second knuckle on her right hand didn’t feel stiff anymore. She scrolled through the obituaries on her laptop. Emmett James McCall had gone to be with the Lord, dying in his home of natural causes. She looked at the lamp on the end table next to her. It sent the same subtle, fractured patterns across her wall as it had in her grandfather’s house.
“I tried to do it the right way first, grand-pap,” she said, with a small shrug.
SCOTT OLSSON was born and raised in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, where he was chided by multiple English teachers for wasting his gifts and instead pursuing a juvenile record. He graduated from Geneva College and has spent the last 18 years as a social worker, working with wayward youth. He got a late start writing, much like his biggest influence, Raymond Chandler. He can often be found in the South Side of Pittsburgh, talking to the kids who hop freight trains.