This article originally appeared in Volume I, Issue II of StoryBoard Memphis Quarterly in March 2022.
Lamps do not have names – at least, most do not. They are called “lamps,” or “torches,” or “my grandmother’s super old metal lamp,” and they find their use in lighting dark dwellings or as decor.
Lamps do not have feelings. They may shout in a metallic voice when you drop them, or groan as the metal is shaped into spiraling vines perfect to hold the flowers that will be welded to them. They do not feel, though. They do not hold grudges.
Lamps do not desire, they do not ache, they do not want. They do not look at the ore that they illuminate in the depth of a mine and want to return to the familiar cold, listening to the endless drippings of water from the low hanging ceilings. Though they may burn through a power socket at home, that does not mean they have tried to burn down the den they now adorn in a righteous fit of rage. They do not see other bits of metal being worked into chairs or globes and wish that they could’ve been shaped that way.
Lamps are not people.
Therefore, lamps cannot be ghosts.
Richard knew this, on a purely logical level. But his more superstitious side told him that ever since his grandmother passed, her super old metal lamp that he’d inherited was out to get him.
The lamp was present at her death, had sat on the dresser until she collapsed against it, and knocked it over. It had landed a few feet from her convulsing body, and had laid on that floor with her for three days until they both were found.
The lamp had broken when it fell, but Richard did not see any reason to fix it. It gave it more character, he thought, that one of those perfect spirals had snapped. The previous symmetry of that perfect lamp was ruined, and it seemed somehow better for it.
And so, he placed it in his living room, and plugged it in.
That was when the trouble began. His home seemed dimmer after that; new bulbs would blow out, five-year guarantees broken far too frequently.
A month of replacing bulbs constantly justified hiring an electrician, who would reveal to Richard that there was no problem.
He was just unlucky; or maybe he should sue the company.
He didn’t have any reason to suspect his grandmother’s lamp. No evidence presented itself except for the strange fear that would suddenly grip him occasionally. It was the sort of apprehension he remembered having felt when he was a child and his dad would come home from a difficult day at work; the quiet buzzing that would fill his head as he hid in his closet, hoping that the stomps would continue past his room and down the unlit hallway to the master bedroom. The same dryness in his mouth as he knelt in the dark corner, pulling at the sleeves of his shirt, the smell of rat urine potent enough to wrinkle his nose but not strong enough to make him leave. The cold of knowing that something could happen, if he weren’t careful enough.
He hadn’t felt that fear in years—not since he moved out—but it was here, now.
He dealt with this strange sensation very bravely. He stayed away from the house most of the day, and he could blame the goosebumps across his arms on the cool Autumn winds. The minor inconveniences, however, did not end.
The lights were no longer burning out. No ﹘ instead, they burst violently, scattering glass across the floor as though they belonged in a horror movie.He cleaned up three bulbs in three separate rooms before he decided to just keep the lights off. Except his grandmother’s lamp.
His grandmother’s lamp remained lit until October 20, 2021, when he received a call from his neighbor.
“Richard! Hey, this is Carol, I know you said you weren’t interested in the neighborhood watch, but, um, I thought I might want to give you a call anyway, because we should all look out for each other, no matter our own, um, deeply held convictions,” she began, seemingly out of breath, yet somehow able to say so much.
“Right,” Richard grumbled as he perused the frozen pizza section. “What do you need, Carol?”
“Oh, nothing. I was wondering if your car was in the shop because it’s not in the driveway. And, if the reason it’s not in the driveway is because you aren’t home, well, you may want to be aware that there is some smoke coming from your house,” she said cautiously, as though she had the time to choose her words when the purpose of her call was essentially to say: “Your house is on fire.”
Richard hissed a quick, “Shit,” and hung up. He dropped his basket and lightly jogged out of the store, fingers fumbling as he typed in the number for the fire department.
By the time the firefighters deemed it safe for him to enter the house, the windows had already been blackened, and paint peeled off of the walls. A strong stench accompanied the feeling of despair as he stepped through ashes and burnt carpet, wondering where the hell he was meant to live now.
A burnt outlet was the cause, he had been told. A burnt outlet. He crossed the living room and stood beneath the smoke-stained arch before the dining room, eyes locked onto his grandmother’s lamp that lay on the ground. He walked into the room, pulling on gloves that Lowe’s promised were good for electricians, and ripped the plug from the outlet. He kneeled, and lifted the lamp to give it a good, long glare. Of course it would be unmarred. The smooth metal vines had no smudges; the bulb, miraculously, unbroken.
He scoffed. He stood with it cradled to his chest and went to the kitchen. He pulled open the drawer that held the broken piece. He walked back to his car.
Richard wasn’t good at recalling the names of trees or flowers, but as he strolled through the iron gates at the Metal Museum, he was grateful for the shade cast by the large trees. It seemed right, somehow. The falling leaves drifting by and the bushes to the side melded perfectly with the manmade structures of metal and brick.
The museum wasn’t obvious, not in the way the Memphis Zoo was. It was on a long road that ran beside two Chickasaw burial mounds, at least one of which had been gutted and “repurposed” as a storage for munitions during the Civil War.
Richard wondered as he gave the beautiful scenery a long appreciative look, how long it would be until this museum would be repurposed. It had once been part of a hospital, was now a museum for metal pieces; what would it be next?
He walked past the first large building, turning his head to watch the chime as the winds played it, listening to the melancholic song it sang. His mask kept his face warm against the crisp cold, but his fingers clenched against the metal lamp he clung to.
He walked through the outdoor section, stopping to read infographics and watch people practice their skills. He watched the warm smiles the workers gave one another, attempted to listen to their conversations under the repair tent over the scream from a knife sharpener’s table as he introduced blades to some sort of machine that sent sparks flying. He left the tent, following desire to a small path that cut through some bushes. He entered the wooden pavilion at the path’s end and stared out over the Mississippi River.
“Mark Twain said that this was the best view of the Mississippi river,” mused a man standing a few feet from him.
Richard smiled, and, though he didn’t know if it were true, he believed it.
He stood over a trough filled with a ribcage of metal, segments of it broken like vertebrae, and he wondered if those metal bones would last longer than his own. He saw a tree that seemed more like a snake, tangling around vertical beams, branches stretching out like the heads of a hydra. An easel displaying squares of poured metal designs laid against it, and Richard wondered how long those squares of life would remain.
He stayed for the iron pour, and watched as fire spewed from the tops and the sides wherever the cupolette was unplugged. He sat for what seemed to be an hour as they poured bits of metal and stoked the flames within the furnace, waiting to see the end.
When the molten iron poured from the furnace into the heavy bucket carried by two people, Richard thought for a moment that every YouTube video about this he had ever seen had lied.
The metal was liquid, not honey; it was fast and smooth and orange, orange beyond orange, orange past what he had known orange was able to be. They spilled the orange into the sand molds artists had carefully crafted, and Richard understood, then.
The liquid iron fell onto the grass and set it ablaze.
This molten metal, ripped from the earth, shaped to be something else, was then melted back down to be molded again. It was silent, and it was still, and it was unable to speak, but it was scorching with indignation, burning in its silence, forced to be patient as it waited for that one day it would fall and break and then it would be thrown away or forgotten, or recycled into something new. Until it would fall and break again some other day.
This museum held the breath of artists and their creations, the soothing calm and safety that hung over the location as it asked of them to set themselves ablaze one last time, and to find their final shape.
He turned from the creators working together to fill the castings, and went to the tent where two men sat, papers strewn about and two laptops open before them.
He gave the lamp to the men under the tent, half listened as they explained what needed to be done, at the price tag of the repair being fifty dollars. He watched as they taped the spiral that had been snapped off back onto the base, and they sat it on a shelf with other broken pieces of metal, shaped and bent to become fish, and statues, and globes, and boxes that awaited their repairs in the calm October chill.
This article is part of the Behind the Arts Writers Workshop, made possible by an Arts Build Communities grant from the Tennessee Arts Commission and administered by ArtsMemphis.
Ethan Tatom is a creative writing major, born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. As a person who has to endure the horrors of modernity, he finds that both his professional interests and his hobbies lie in the macabre. He enjoys over-analyzing movies, writing stories, and cleaning bones.