I saw that my father had bought a kerosene lamp — I guessed he would use it when our electricity went out. I knew that he liked old-fashioned things and might find its antique shape and dim glow comforting. Moreover, he had no income — my mother worked at a hospital job — so he would appreciate the savings in electricity. He burned the lamp in the kitchen at night while he drank. I imagined the lamp was still glowing when he fell asleep at the table.
As soon as I saw the lamp, I wanted to experiment with it. I brought the device to my bedroom, turned up the flat wick with the key on the metal base and lit the soaked cotton with a match. The flame licked the inside of the glass chimney and gave off a black smoke. I turned the wick up as far as it would go and held my open hand over the top of the glass. My palm was soon coated with carbon.
Aside from watching the lamp, there wasn’t much for me to do at night. I usually stayed up late, after my brother and sister had gone to sleep. Then, I would leave our house and walk along the empty street. At the first streetlight, I could turn right onto a dirt lane. Where the lane passed through an unfarmed field, the view would open up, and if the sky was clear, I would be able to see stars. The Milky Way would stretch like a band of haze directly overhead. But I didn’t want to go out. Wherever I walked, I would not see anyone. I would have no company. I was fairly comfortable in my room, watching lampblack collect on the glass near the glowing wick.
My father retrieved the lamp. When I walked by his “studio,” I saw the device on his worktable and a still-life painting on an easel nearby. The lamp was floating in the center of the canvas, over two intersecting lines. The lines were drawn at right angles, one vertical, the other horizontal. All of the edges were sharp. My father had a steady hand, despite the amount of alcohol he consumed.
When my father saw me looking at the painting, he said, “This is what I was meant to do, but this is what I cannot do, because I have a family. I spend my time working for you, not working for myself. Let me give you some advice: don’t ever have a family.”
I took the lamp to school for a presentation in speech class. The assignment was to persuade my audience — my classmates — to do something. I stood at the front of the room with the lamp in my hands. “You might not have one of these yet,” I said, “but someday you might need one. What are going to do when the lights go out? Do you have a flashlight? What happens when the batteries die? You’ll need a light, and not just a match or a candle. You’ll need the biggest burner you can find — a kerosene lamp!”
I held out the lamp and twisted the key. “You can adjust the wick,” I continued, “so you can go from a low flame to the highest flame you’ve ever seen! The kerosene will last for days, and it’s cheaper than gasoline. When you’re trapped by a storm, you can sit and stare at the flame. You’ll see things you’ve never seen. You’ll see the beginning, and you’ll see the end.”
I pulled out a box of matches and started to strike one, but the teacher stopped me. “There’s no fire in the school,” he said.
After my speech, the teacher asked the class to vote. Everyone who was persuaded to acquire a kerosene lamp was invited to raise his or her hand. No one responded.
“It’s hard to get no votes,” the teacher said to me. “Your speech had a strong effect.”
In the hallway after class, a girl asked me, “Can you use the lamp to attract moths?”
“I think so,” I said.
“Let’s take it out one night,” she said. “I’ll do that with you.”
As a test, I set the burning lamp on my windowsill after dark. I could imagine a moth being drawn to the light: the moth would see a flame, or multiple flames, through its compound eyes. The image would be a kaleidoscope of light fragments radiating from the wick’s tip. The moth would have been navigating by the moon, but the moon would be hidden, and the lamp would be the next best thing. The moth would have no choice but to fly toward the light; that’s what moths were hardwired to do. But the moth would encounter an obstacle: a pane of glass between its body and the flame. Perhaps this development would be lucky; the moth would not fly into the flame and be burned alive. It would settle on the outside of my window and rest its wings.
I tried to call the girl from school, but her mother answered the phone. “Why are you calling?” she asked.
“Your daughter is in my class. We want to take my lamp out at night.”
“To attract moths.”
“How would that work?”
“The flame will act like the moon.”
“You’re making no sense,” the mother said, and hung up.
During the next storm, our electricity went out — it happened at night. My father walked through the house with a flashlight, fetching candles and setting them in saucers. He gave one candle each to my brother, sister and mother. But he could not find the kerosene lamp. I saw the blinking of the flashlight, so I picked up the lamp, rolled out the wick, and lit it. The flame was of medium size, but it was brighter than any candle. I brought the lamp to the living room and put it down, and waited for the rest of my family to gather around.
Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of seven books, most recently Tricks of Light (Great Weather for Media, 2020), a poetry collection. He teaches at Medgar Evers College and received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. More: thaddeusrutkowski.com