FictionWinter 22-23

Lights Out — Amber Burke

Bismarck, ND

I am closing my eyes because the lights have come back on. These blinding glints across the field of my vision, and the dryness in my mouth, in my throat, remind me of being on the snow-covered prairie delivering mail. 

“Dad, they’re not turning the lights out,” my son Cliff says to me. “We talked to them. The lights are always on.” 

Those winters delivering mail, the prairie was like a hospital room with no walls, white and bright. I feel again the way I felt when I shoveled my black Ford truck out of the snow, again and again, to make it through the fifty-two miles of my dirt-road route outside Napoleon. Shovel after shovel. My shovel might as well have been a spoon. My heart was as strong as two hearts, my muscles bone-tired. And the wind ripped the moisture from my eyes. But sometimes I would feel a presence alongside me, looking after me. After enough shoveling, I felt warm. Once I cleared enough snow, I would get in the truck and drive toward the horizon, awash in brightness, the sky indistinguishable from the land. And I felt sure that if I kept driving, I would get right to Heaven with my mail. This was a long time ago.

“They said they’re not turning the lights out, Dad, did you hear?” That’s Janie. She sounds a lot like her mother. And looks like her, too.

My son is here, and my daughter is here. They do not understand me, my children, but their not-understanding does not annoy me the way it usually would because they seem to be far away. On the other side of something. Janie rubs my arms. My arms feel far away, but she makes them come back when she rubs them. She makes my arms out of nothing. She knows how to do these things that women can do: make something out of nothing. The kinds of things my wife could do.

Maggie. I came back from Iwo Jima, uninjured, though minus two tonsils, and I asked Maggie to marry me.  I had never had a girlfriend. I had never gone anywhere with Maggie alone. But we got married, and it turned out that I loved her and that she made excellent kuchen. When we were poor those first years, when Cliff was a baby yet, she had a way of making coffee with almost no grounds, coffee that still tasted strong. She was as good as any woman. Like the sky and the earth in Napoleon. Good and real and there. 

“I’m thirsty,” I say.  My eyes are closed and my mouth is closed. There is something against my lips. 

“Open your mouth a little. They took the tubes out so you could drink.”

“I don’t want the tubes,” I say.

“We know, Dad,” Janie says. “They took them out.”

She is a good daughter. Sometimes, I would take her with me on my route, and the farmers waiting by their mailboxes leaned into the truck, and said, “Little girl, do you want to come home with me?” She always shook her head no. She never wanted to go home with them.  Then she grew up and moved away, but she’s back now. I’m sorry she doesn’t have a husband because she is soft and patient and would make a good wife. 

“How long do I have?” I ask now. Or I might have asked earlier. 

“You’re going to make it to Easter, but not Memorial Day,” the doctor says.

“Who cares about Memorial Day?” I say. One day isn’t enough to remember anything. One needs years to do the work of remembering. 

I don’t know if Memorial Day is soon or a long time from now. I don’t even know if this is winter or summer. It could be either, or both, for sometimes I feel very cold and sometimes I feel very hot. I was cold before but now I am hot. My blood is stinging.

◊ ◊ ◊

Summers, the mail route was easier, but I had the farm to think about. And it hurt my body, the work I did: heaving the rocks out of the way of my red tractor, bending, standing, seldom taking a break even to drink. I would look up at noon and see the sun right above me. When it beat straight down on me, when I was most unprotected, I felt most protected. I was sore and hot, my mouth was dry, and the sun was smack in the center of the sky, right above my patch of earth. The sun seemed to be in line with the earth, I was in line with them both, and I felt lifted, like the sun was pulling me up more than the earth was pulling me down. I did not mind the soreness or the heat or the thirst. 

“My throat,” I say.

“Do you want some ice cream, Dad?” Janie asks.

The lights go out again, and my own blood is burning; there is a terrible sharpness in my gut. It amazes me what the body can do to itself. The pain feels like it must be coming from outside, but it is coming from inside. 

“Look, he’s in pain. Look how his arms go up,” Janie says.

“They all do that.” My eyes are closed, and I don’t know this voice, but I know it is a nurse-voice. 

Cliff is asking the nurse if I have had my morphine shot, and the nurse is saying she will check. They don’t always do things right. My wife was at this hospital twenty years ago. I know she would have lived longer if Cliff had been here, telling them what to do, but no one thought it was a big problem, what she had wrong with her. Then she died because someone made a mistake, and no one was with her.  

My two children are getting along. Cliff is glad that Janie is here, and Janie is glad that Cliff is here. People think sometimes that I am not paying attention, but I have always paid attention. Cliff and Janie don’t always get along, and I don’t blame either of them. Of course Cliff would resent the sister he sees as flighty, a wanderer; Janie would resent Cliff for being dogged and dutiful always. I have resented Cliff sometimes because of how much he reminds me of me. 

The pain whites out my thoughts. It is worse than when they took my tonsils out in the tent in Iwo Jima. I wouldn’t have said anything about my tonsils swelling, if the pain hadn’t been so bad, because they didn’t have much equipment. But the pain was bad, so I told them, and they reached into my throat with burning-hot tongs. Snip, snip. I bled and bled. I could have bled to death, and what was there to stop it? 

“He got his morning shot.” The nurse is back. 

“He’s supposed to get an evening shot, too,” Cliff says.

“I don’t know anything about that,” the nurse says. 

“I have to go to the bathroom,” I say.  

Cliff helps me to the bathroom. I am shocked by my reflection in the mirror. If possible, I look worse than I feel. Whiter than white, in a backless papery gown, and so hunched over.  I don’t like it when people don’t stand up straight. It seems disrespectful. To something.

“I can’t straighten up,” I say. 

“That’s okay,” Cliff says. 

“I’m still taller than you!” I say.

He is holding me, but it is a free fall to the toilet seat. Things still work weakly but getting up again takes the cooperation of armies. 

The walk back to the bed is worse than the walk from the bed; the steps I take yank on my gut. I can feel this thing eating me from the inside. Someone needs to reach in with tongs and take out all my organs and all my bones.

Then Janie is serving me ice cream: the spoon clicks against my teeth. I feel better. People eat ice cream, and they feel better. I get tired; I nod off; I wake when I get another shot. The hurt of the shot has become the same as relief. 

I laugh a little bit.

“He’s laughing,” Janie says. “He doesn’t know what’s going on.”

I know. I know who’s here, and who isn’t.  I know Cliff’s son isn’t here. I know Josh let him down. He is not like Cliff, never was.

◊ ◊ ◊

There’s nothing here, I remember my grandson saying when Cliff visited me on the farm. This was when his son was a child, not long after Maggie died.  I was lonely, so I was glad Cliff brought him: Josh, a little boy with his hair cut like mine when I was in the Navy. 

I stood outside with the child and tried to think what I could show him because what he said pained me. I was going on seventy then. With my two pensions, I’d stopped having to farm to get by, so it was true that there were no more cows, no more chickens, not even wheat, just long grass that bent and chuffed with the wind, and the government gave me a little money not to plant the land. I donated the money because I didn’t think it was right to get money for not working.  But what was here was not nothing.

“Look around!” I said. I showed my grandson where there’d once been a sod hut.  I showed him a wooden fence slouching in the grass, the strapping power lines. It was early in my marriage when the power lines came this far into the country, and, the farmhouses lit up, all our wives discovered how dirty everything was. They cleaned and cleaned. After that, we men had to take off our shoes on the doorstep whenever we came inside, even though the dust still rose from our clothes. Even though without shoes, we felt vulnerable and small and like children.

“What?” The child didn’t understand what I was trying to show him. But all around us was so much: a sprawl of land below a deep cup of sky! Ragged clouds blowing fast. The land in Napoleon felt more like land than the land in other places, the sky more like sky. More there. Maybe because I could see so much of both.

“Your dad is from here. I’m from here,” I said to my grandson. I tried to make him understand. “My grandfather came here with a spoon in his boot.”

Imagine! I said. I imagined: he comes as a young man from Odessa, drives his ox and cart who knows how far, gets here. He’s dusty. He’s covered in dust. It must have felt like a mail route that lasted for states and states. It must have been that hard. He brings his spoon and he brings his wife, and his wife brings a rock to weight down the sauerkraut pot because in Russia rocks were precious. All to get to land that is nothing like Russia, where there are no grapes growing. Where there are so many rocks! 

But he built a sod hut, and the earth kept him safe inside itself. It was a good hut: even when cows walked on its roof, which they did, more than once, it did not break. And now that house that even the weight of a bull could not bow is no more, and you, child, are here, made out of something that is gone. 

What I am saying is perfect and clear, and the child I am talking to looks at me like he understands everything I am telling him. I suddenly know that this is not happening, not what really happened. I know that because I have never spoken words that were perfect and clear, and no children have ever looked at me like they understand me.

And I am crying because I know I am not on the farm. I sold it not long after Cliff’s visit. 

“He’s upset,” Janie says. “Don’t be upset, Dad.”

I pipe down by the time the priest sits down and starts talking about his own mother dying in this same room, in the empty bed next to mine. He goes on and on. 

“I’ll mail you a pamphlet,” he says, “on grief.”

“Not a good father,” I say.

“You are a good father,” Janie says. 

“He’s not a good priest. The man who was just here,” I say. Or maybe he wasn’t just here. Maybe it was after my wife died that a priest visited me and talked all about himself and his own mother. Weeks later, a pamphlet came in the mail with instructions for mourning. It told me not to give away my wife’s things for at least a year. I had already given away all my wife’s things.

Then the room is full again, and the good priest, the one I like, with the hair with white spots like a deer’s, comes and gives me last rites. He wets my hands and my feet and my face with oil, blesses me, and I can feel warmth coming down like wet sunlight. 

“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” the good priest says in his pious voice that sometimes squeaks.  “You have excellent timing. It’s almost Easter, and every Easter renews the promise that resurrection awaits us all.” 

“I don’t know about that,” I say; though, by the time the words escape my mouth, the priest is already gone. I do not know about the resurrection business. A bunch of women show up and see a stone that’s been rolled away from the mouth of the tomb. They go in: no body there. My first thought would have been thieves. Moving a stone out of the way seemed like something a man would have to do to get in. Not a god, to get out. Couldn’t a god go right through the roof? 

“Dad, you’re going to see Mom,” Janie says. 

“I don’t know about that,” I say.

“It’s the morphine,” Cliff says. “He knows he will see Mom.”

I don’t know that I will see my wife. When I found out she had died, I felt something drain from me, and I realized that the sense of a comforting and righteous presence I’d had watching me for most of my life was not Jesus or God but my wife. I could feel her attention on me even when she was not there. And then, after she died, I could not feel her watching me anymore: all the snow I shoveled, I shoveled alone. Which made me stop believing in Heaven. If there is a Heaven, I think, I would be able to feel my wife still watching me from it.

Unless, of course, she is busy.

But I have kept going to church, because what else is there to do? What else is there for me? Catholicism is the key I have in my pocket. If Catholicism is the right key, I will be able to open the box, but it might be that I don’t have the right key. Or it might be that I will open up the mailbox, but the mailbox will be empty.

“I won’t have a letter,” I hear myself saying. 

“Shhh, Dad. You’ll have a letter,” Cliff says.

◊ ◊ ◊

I am outside. It is almost noon, and the sun is above us. Cliff is next to me, interlacing his hands behind his neck and looking up. He’s telling me to sell the farm. 

“I’m not ready,” I tell him. 

“Dad, just consider it while you’re lucky enough to have someone who wants to buy. Otherwise, this land will go back to the buffalo.”

“Don’t talk to me about the buffalo,” I say. It insults me to hear about the buffalo. My grandfather did not wrest this land from nature, I did not spend my whole life moving rocks from it, just so I could surrender it to the buffalo. 

“Think about selling, before it’s worth nothing.”

  How could it be worth nothing? The sky is such a strong blue that there could be another sky above it, the land so solid there could be another earth beneath it. 

“I’m not going to farm, Dad. Neither is he.” He motions with his chin to his son. Josh plays with the mailbox; the red metal flag squeaks up, squeaks down. 

  I don’t want my children or my grandson to have to work as hard as I worked. But I want them to want to keep the farm. It would be good for them. It would keep them from wanting foolish things, if they had the farm to come back to. But they go someplace farther when they decide to travel; they go to big cities or beaches. I have never much cared for cities, where buildings are like paperweights pressing down the land. And I was at war on the ocean, and that was enough ocean for me: oceans are full of blasting ships and smoke, dying and bobbing men. The land ringing my flat farm has always been a thousand-mile trench against the ocean. I have felt safe. And sometimes I think that if my children would keep the farm, they would be safe, too. 

I sold the farm. I moved to Bismarck to be closer to Cliff. Good thing. His son left and never came back. Cliff was always too easy on him. I was not easy on my children and now, look: they are tending to me.

Sleep is like a dark pond, and I go into it, I come out of it, and I go into it, come out, and sometimes I feel like I am both in it and out of it. Then, I drop suddenly into a depth I had not expected: my whole self sinks under water, as if I have spoons in my boots and rocks in my pockets, and I am surprised to find that once you go deep enough, once it gets dark enough, it starts to get lighter again. 

I have nearly made it to another surface: a top of the pond on the bottom of the pond. That’s it, I think. I found it. The light, all this time, has been right there, on the other side of the darkness. 

I open my eyes with a start.  “When did I die? Before midnight or after midnight?” I ask.

“Dad, you’re not dead,” Cliff is saying. He’s the only one here now, and I’m glad no one else heard me. 

“I know I’m not dead,” I scoff. Of course, I know that. 

“It’s before midnight. It’s eleven.”

“What would make me go off my rocker like that?” I do not want to go off my rocker. Or, if I go off my rocker, I would like to go back to the farm where I grew up and raised my own family. I would not like to spend my last hours alive thinking that I am dead.  That seems a waste of time. 

“You’re on some pretty strong meds. You have a drip now,” Cliff says.

They are talking about bringing me to Cliff’s house, but they cannot find a nurse. I know it is hard to find a home nurse in this city because there aren’t enough nurses for all the old people who are always dying. The old people come from the farms to be closer to children and hospitals. An army of old people, marching to cities to die.

“He’s not getting any treatment here. He can’t stay. We have to move him to a nursing home if we can’t find a home health care worker,” a nurse’s voice says.

“I want to stay where I am,” I say. I may say. 

I’m on the farm yet. The sun, the sky, the grandson putting rocks in the mailbox, taking them out.  I look around. I understand that it is desolate, but there is something in the desolation that is good. Life here isn’t easy, and it isn’t beautiful. But what is there to be proud of if you survive in ease and beauty? If I brag from time to time about my height or my strength or my smarts, it is because these are all things that I eked from this stony patch of earth. I look at those thin trees, the rows of trees planted to block the wind: they’ve got to do many times the work of ordinary trees, to hold down the land, to keep the dust from blowing, because there’s so much land and so much wind and so few of them. Their branches are always shaking as if, from the inside, they are trying to tear themselves apart, raise themselves up: long-dutiful trees, ready for their own assumptions.  Those are the trees that deserve admiration.

Cliff is shaving my face.

“You came back,” I say to my son. 

“I never left,” he says. 

It is not good for young children to watch old men die, but my own children are old children now, almost the age I was when I lost everything, my wife and my farm. It is good to watch old men die, at a certain age, because you have to learn how to die yourself. I have watched my brothers and sisters die and my parents die, and my greatest pain is that I did not see my wife die. I suppose it is my turn. There are so few ropes holding me here.

“Are you okay, Dad?” Cliff asks.

“It hurts,” I say.  The razor stops.

“I pressed the button, Dad. It should stop hurting soon,” Cliff says. 

I can hear the razor scraping against my skin again, but my chin is down somewhere else, at the bottom of a steep slope.

“How does that feel, Dad?” Cliff asks. My hand is on my face. I wonder if Cliff put it there for me. “Better?”

“I know I was hard on you,” I say to my son. 

“It’s okay.”

“I know I was hard on you, but look how you turned out,” I tell him.

There is a long pause, and I am not sure he heard me. He says, “You’ve been a good dad, and I love you.” I can tell we are alone, because of how his voice sounds. Young. “We’ll all be okay here. We’ll miss you but we’ll be okay. Don’t worry about us.”

I know what he says is meant to be an untethering, but now I notice that I am dying in the middle of a story that I will never know the end to: who will tend to my children, when they die, the way they are tending to me? Where are their children?

“I’m not ready,” I say. “I’m not ready.” I hold onto the ropes. 

“The farm is falling apart. It’s time to let it go,” Cliff is saying, as we look toward the horizon. “You can sell. Go anywhere.”

  It is noon. The sun is straight overhead, and light is coming down over us like the ribs of the umbrella. Our shadows disappear beneath our feet. There is a feeling at this time of day that the sun is not ascending, not descending; it is where it is, and each time it’s there, I think it might stay. 

“Come on, Dad. Let go.”

I clutch at the farm with my eyes; I am sure this place is worth more than anyone knows: the sky above the sky, the land beneath the land. 

The screen door creaks open. 

There is a shadow that changes the weight of the hospital room, and I know someone else is here. I make out a figure framed by door. It looks like my wife’s.

“Dad, I’m back.”

I see my wife on the doorstep.  “It’s time,” Maggie says, wiping her hands on her apron. Her hair is in its neat curls, and her spectacles reflect the sun.  Children come running. Whose children are these? There are so many of them, all heading for the house together.

“Take off your shoes,” Maggie says.

The children take off their shoes quickly and run in, but I have to sit on the doorstep to unlace my boots, which takes a long time.  When I have my boots off, I stand up, I go in through the screen door, and it is bright inside. So bright that I realize I am not inside: I am outside, standing with no shoes under the sun. Light on top of light on top of me. And behold: at last, I am rising; I am dust in the light.  I am weightless in the noon.


Amber Burke is from North Dakota. A graduate of Yale and the Writing Seminars MFA program at Johns Hopkins University, she now teaches writing and leads the 200-hour yoga teacher training at the University of New Mexico in Taos. Her creative work, some of it Pushcart-nominated, has been published in magazines and literary journals including The Sun, Michigan Quarterly Review, Mslexia, Superstition Review, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Quarterly West. She is also a regular contributor to Yoga International, which has published over 100 of her articles and the ebook she co-authored, Yoga for Common Conditions.

The author: Leah VanSyckel