Bourbon Penn 32

The Lightbulb Cannot Be Changed

by Sasha Brown

It was night in the tall city and the buildings stretched up to the clouds like highways. Windows like dotted yellow lines. Everyone was shuffling down the sidewalk at the same pace, hoodies up. I was too. I looked up, to see if I could see anything past the endless clouds.

You never could. The clouds never went away. No stars.

I tripped and stumbled into the guy ahead of me. Someone else knocked me down. Someone stepped on my foot.

A bony hand pulled me off to the side, under a little overhang in the concrete wall.

He was a skinny little guy, big ears, lank long hair plastered around his skull. “Caughtcha lookin up,” he said. “I do it too.”

“Oh.” I turned to go.

“Wait. You wanna see stars?”

I backed away. “We’re not allowed up there. The high floors aren’t for us. They cut people for that.”

“They just warn you the first time. And besides, they never catch anyone. You always do what you’re supposed to?”

“Yeah. Why, don’t you?”

He shrugged. “I have clinical optimism,” he said, like he’d practiced this speech. “My brain got a chemical imbalance that makes it hard for me to see the world as it is. Like biologically speaking, I’m too happy. I take pills for it.”

I looked around. People like that usually didn’t say it out loud. It was embarrassing. “Why are you telling me?”

“Pick a hand.” He held out two fists gleaming like maggots in the dark, knuckles up. I picked one; he opened it to show a little pill, gummy with sweat, stuck to the creases in his palm. He shook it off to the ground. “I don’t take the pills no more. I just want to feel something, you know? You do too. I can tell.”

I wasn’t sure about that, but the thing was it felt like he was inviting me on an adventure. Out of all the people, this guy wanted to go somewhere with me. It would be nice just to make a permanent memory. Maybe I could borrow a little bit of whatever he had, or it would rub off on me. A little dangerous hope.

“How can you tell?”

He grinned at me with crooked teeth. “’Cause you picked a hand.”

I didn’t exactly smile back, but I went.

His name was Ray. We took the elevator up for a ways, but it stopped where you weren’t allowed to go higher. The hallway was all cinderblocks and Ray went to a little door at the end. “They never lock it,” he said. “They figure nobody’s gonna try.”

We had to trudge up five flights of stairs to the roof. Neither of us were used to exercise. I looked up at his flat ass while we climbed. There was a little smiley face drawn in magic marker on his saggy jeans.

“You promise no one will catch us?” I asked.

“No one ever checks.”

“It’s just that it’s so bad if they do.”

“They won’t even cut you, the first time. First time is just a warning. It’s your first time, right?”

He creaked one last door open, and we were out on the roof.

I peered over the railing. The clouds were sludge below us, and the buildings came up like shark teeth through gums.

“No, but look up,” he said.

There were the stars.

Stars looked like you were in a basement with a bunch of other people and the lights were off and everyone was smoking cigarettes. It made me feel like I was at a party and we were going to take turns telling secrets.

Ray came over next to me and took my hand. It felt clammy but I let him do it.

“It’s worth it, right?” he asked. He leaned his face up toward mine.

“Yeah.” Our lips were so dry that it felt like any other body parts touching, like not a big deal, but his hand snaked between my legs and felt how excited I was, how badly I wanted to be here in this moment. I started to put my hand between his legs too, but he jerked away like he didn’t want me to. I didn’t push it. I barely cared, if I could just feel something. If I could just be under the cigarette stars with a boy’s hand between my legs, both of us where no one was allowed.

I kept stealing glances at the stars, looking all around while we kissed, so I saw the shadows while he was still distracted. I heard the boots scraping on the concrete. I tried to push him away but he held on, like he didn’t get it, while the gendarmes surrounded us.

They pulled us apart and Ray lost his shit, like a switch flipped, shrieking and struggling, eyes bulging. The gendarmes were all in black and they were waving flashlights all over the place. Through them walked a thin man in a white coat like a doctor. Flashlight beams zagged around, shining on his big round glasses.

“I’m so sorry to see you again, Ray,” he said. Ray shut up when he saw him. The gendarmes aimed their flashlights at the doctor and he raised a black-gloved hand, Ray’s slimy white pill glistening in his fingers.

Ray struggled, but it was no use. “Taylor didn’t have nothing to do with this, Doc. It was me.”

He turned to me then, his glasses like searchlights. “Taylor is your name? Poor child. So weak. Such a follower.” He shook his head. “Happiness is a perverse thing. You’ve heard this before. It is a distorted view of the world, yes? Inaccurate.”

The doctor held out his hand, and a gendarme brought a bulky briefcase to him. It clanked when he set it down. “The world is a dark place. It is not cruel to acknowledge this; it’s cruel to deny it. Hope is a thing of cruelty.”

“I wasn’t going to have any hope,” I said, my voice high with fear. “It was just my first time, I won’t do it again.” I kept looking at the briefcase. It had clanked like metal, like there was metal inside it. What was it? What metal things had he brought with him?

“A man reaches to change a burned-out lightbulb,” said the doctor. “His ladder is unsteady. Everyone says, ‘Watch out, you will fall!’ But he does not listen. He keeps reaching until the ladder tips. There’s a great clatter. Now everything is a mess, and still there is no light. What do we do with that man who cannot stop reaching to change the lightbulb?”

I cringed back as much as I could, but the gendarmes held me tight.

“We take his eyes from him, so he doesn’t miss the light.” The doctor looked only at me. “Or we take his hands, so he cannot reach for the bulb.”

Ray screamed, arms pinned behind his back. “Do it to me!” he shrieked. “It’s my fault!”

“But we have already taken so much from you.” The doctor opened the bag. He brought out a scalpel in one hand. In the other, a cleaver. “Now, Taylor, your friend’s trouble has spilled onto you, and you must choose. Eyes or hands.”

I looked wide-eyed over at Ray. “Did they already catch you?” The gendarmes braced themselves to hold me up. “Did they already cut you?”

“I’ll take the pills forever,” Ray gurgled. “I swear, sir.”

“I didn’t even look up,” I said. “He made me.”

“What a difficult moment for you, Taylor.” The doctor nodded his head, sympathetic. “What a position Ray’s awful hope has put you in. Eyes or hands.”

The worst thing is to be helpless while pain comes for you. To be warned. “Please,” I begged. “I’ll do anything.”

“If you do not choose,” he said, “we will take both.”

I looked up at him, pleading, but his glasses masked his face.

“Eyes,” I whispered.

He dropped the cleaver, stepped forward and jerked my head up by my hair, and the scalpel sank into my eye. I squeezed my eyelids shut as it went in, and it cut through them too. I drew in my breath like I’d stepped into icy water. I could feel the blade behind my eye, stabbing inside me. It wiggled back and forth as the gendarmes held me steady, rotating my eyeball in its socket before it flipped it out of me. With my one eye I saw the other impaled, a ruined thing.

He shook the scalpel irritably once, three times and it splatted on the ground. He bore my head back again. Gloved fingers forced my eyelids open. The cigarette stars watched me. The blade was slow this time; it tickled my eyelashes, dimpled my cornea. An unbearable blackening pressure came, and then my last eye popped and the windows closed on my mind and it was just helpless agony. I heard Ray howling somewhere, short and rhythmic exhalations, as though not so much a protest as a song.

• • •

One night I walked home in a light rain, so light I could hardly feel it, and I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. The stream of people went on around me. Everything went around me now. Sometimes I would stop, force people to veer. Look at the power of my scarred and empty face. I could hear their footsteps falter as they avoided me.

I took my sunglasses off and turned my face toward the sky. I tried to remember the stars puffing like cigarettes. How it felt like I had been invited to a party. I let the rain spatter down, pooling in my eye sockets. It seeped into my sinuses, dripped out my nose.

The trudge of footsteps altered twice. Once for me, and then again a little ways away. I was a little hole in the noise of the busy sidewalk, and there was another hole. The other hole moved closer to me, and I couldn’t hear the space but only the people moving around it, and then we were just one bigger silent spot. I knew it was him, but I didn’t say anything. He didn’t either. After a while I walked off and his silence receded and was gone.

I began to stop more and more. In the aisle at the grocery store, I would just stand there; people would have to back their shopping carts up. In line at the coffee shop, I would see how long people waited before stepping around me. No one said anything. No one jostled me or yelled.

Ray was often there. I could feel him. He never participated. His cart didn’t join mine in the frozen food aisle. He was just there.

One day I walked into the street. The cars hissed to a stop as I went, a quiet pneumatic sound. Their passengers were silent. I felt the cars alert and heavy, waiting for me as I stood motionless in the intersection.

Everything was still and quiet. Everyone stopped for me. I wondered how long I could stand there before someone took me away.

I could hear Ray coming. He walked behind me, whispering as he passed: “Don’t be an asshole. Meet me tonight.”

After a while I walked out of the intersection; the cars hissed to life again and everything kept on going.

• • •

“They’ll finish you if you keep doing shit like that,” he said. “They’ll cut until there’s nothing left.” His voice echoed around the brick walls. We were standing in a tunnel, like in a sewer or something. I hadn’t wanted to follow him down at first, but no one else had even talked to me in so long. I had started to feel like a ghost. It wasn’t against the rules to go down.

He touched my hip to guide me off the ladder into a mucky little stream. It smelled like shit. “It’s slippery,” he said, in the same tone he’d used to tell me to look up.

He was close to me now, like how we’d been the first time. The water swirled around us both. He touched the crinkled flesh around my eye sockets. “They hurt you so bad.” His fingers traced the jagged rims. “It’s my fault. I did this to you.”

He reached in, stroking the inside of my eye socket. I could feel his fingerprints scraping into the red flesh close to my brain.

It felt like a violation. I jerked away. “How did they catch us? You said they never checked.”

“You want to feel what they did to me?”

He took my hand and guided it into his pants, like I’d tried to do that first night. I wormed my hand down and there was nothing there. A purse-drawn blank. I jerked back at first, but then I reached back in, cupping the space between his legs. “Can you feel anything?”

“Not there.”

“Why didn’t they just do the eyes or hands thing?”

“Sometimes they get creative.”

I kept my hand there, but I wasn’t really moving it anymore. “What are we doing down here?”

“It’s just – you could still be happy, right?”

“It’s not really my thing.”

“It’s everybody’s thing. It’s just how far you gotta dig to get to it. I had to watch you, you know? I had to be sure you were cool. But listen for a sec, okay?”

“All I hear is water.”

“No, past that. Hear the beat?”

I could. A thumping, faintly through the tunnels. A rhythm.

“You hear? This is where all of us come. As deep as we need to be. Everyone’s missing something down here.” I pulled my hand out of his pants and he held it in his. It was still clammy, but I let him do it.

We sloshed down the tunnel, through the water. Damp, spongy objects bobbed against my ankles. The music was getting louder, and I wanted it. I imagined secret scarred bodies pressing against each other, writhing together, down in these buried places.

But I imagined other things, too. The glint on the doctor’s glasses. The scalpel. “If they catch me again…”

“Scary, right?” he said, and his fingers came up around my eye sockets again. “That’s what makes it good. That’s the only time I feel something. It makes me happy.”

We came up several stairs to a door. It felt heavy and metal under my touch. Behind it was the music, a wild and insistent throbbing. I tried to open it, but it was locked.

“Pick a hand,” said Ray. I reached out, fumbling through the air until I found one. It was empty.

“Pick the other one,” he said, and guided me to it. There was a big iron key in it.

“I knew it,” he said. “You’re still choosing. There’s still so much of you left.”

The music sounded echoey through the door. I would have thought it would be absorbed into all those waiting bodies. I fumbled with the key. “Can’t they hear the bass up there, though?” It was a heavy lock, but finally I turned it over and Ray reached around me to grab the handle.

“Of course they can,” he said, and pushed it open.

Sasha Brown is a Boston writer, gardener and dad. His surreal fiction is here or coming in lit mags like X-R-A-Y and Masters Review: New Voices, and in genre mags like Old Moon Quarterly and F&SF. He’s on twitter @dantonsix and online at