Winner of the August 2017 Prime Number Magazine Flash Fiction Contest
Judged by Clifford Garstang, author of In an Uncharted Country and What the Zhang Boys Know
Followed by a Q&A
Quality of Light
He arrived at dusk on a Saturday in late summer, the only sound a distant baseball game. I watched him from my porch. He was sweating in an oversized suit and battered wingtips, bearing a big, leather briefcase the style of which I hadn’t seen in decades.
“I have a few things to sell,” he said, a little ashamed.
I saw right away he was a terrible salesman. But Candace had gone last winter and I was retired. I could’ve told you the length of my lawn within a centimeter. Out of boredom, I waved him up.
He sat in a wicker chair and opened the case. Small jars painted black were lashed to the interior with leather straps.
He woodenly recited an opening pitch. “Are you familiar with light?”
“Sun, moon, bulbs, fire. Have you ever thought of the quality of your light?”
I allowed I had not.
“Mass-produced light has a fluorescence of 2.8 with color variance no more than six or seven. By Dark Ages standards, that’s pretty good, but not by today’s.”
He removed a jar and unscrewed its lid. A swirl of pinkish, pale light turned the cylinder into a bottomless, vaporous soup. He churned it with his finger.
“That,” he said, “is Dawn.”
I allowed I’d like to see more.
He presented Domestics first. The Sputtering Candle of blackouts, a timid orange within a halo of encroaching darkness. Then Mid-morning Slice of Sunlight lying warm as a dog across a linoleum floor. I thought of Candace, insisting to the end she take her morning coffee at the nook while I puttered about the kitchen. Those days we talked of anything but her looming, shadowy disease.
He showed Urbans and Industrials: Osaka Back-alley Neon; Bangladeshi Sunset, like a tangerine made of copper; Pale Beam of the Luxor Casino in Las Vegas. The Distant Aurora of Amber Bulbs atop a refinery as seen across a cornfield in Nebraska.
How Candace would have doted, would have made the salesman stay for dinner as we picked our favorites. I thought of trips we’d planned but never taken.
Of the Naturals, there was the sodden gray-green iridescence of Amazonian Rainfall. Midwestern Winter, with its flat, everlasting ambience. And sparkling sea-foam ricochets of Sunlight on Pacific Waves (Atlantic and Mediterranean varieties available). But that Pacific. Well, I guess I don’t have to say what coast Candace and I never made it to.
I admitted this to the salesman.
He surveyed the quiet street, tarnished a brittle indigo the background color of dreams. The baseball game had evaporated. He wanted to move on but didn’t.
“Here’s the good stuff,” he said.
His Special Editions were antiques in hand-blown vessels capped by crumbling cork. Pre-pollution Pillars of Siberian arctic sunbeam. Earth-rich luminescence of Neanderthal Campfire, flame and smoke hugging the limestone walls of charcoal-painted caves. They say light doesn’t have a smell, but I caught a millennia-old whiff of artists at work. I thought of Candace in her studio, her thick-layered oil painting of streetcars trundling through twilight on a San Francisco hill she’d never seen. I hung it in the kitchen.
The finale was Buttery Candelabrum from a lavish dinner at Henry VIII’s court, circa 1523. The salesman, however, admitted to a lack of provenance. “More likely,” he confessed, “it’s Edward VI’s. Henry’s unpopular son.”
That confirmed it. Absolutely terrible as a salesman. No stomach for embellishments or self-delusion—two attributes needed for a good lie. I thought of lies I’d told myself and those I couldn’t anymore.
“What about the light? At the end of the tunnel.”
“Hefty price tag.”
“Suppose I was willing.”
“You sign a disclaimer, I make my commission for the year. Except, pardon my presumption, would your wife have condoned such a purchase?”
I’d have told him to go to hell, but my eyes were blurring, refracting streetlights and turning fireflies into constellations of distant, green fire that swam in streaks and whorls. Maybe loneliness was a part of love, the shadowy twin to the good flame turning in your heart.
I finally said, “I don’t want this light from someone else’s life.” I apologized for wasting his time.
He said it was okay. He arose, wearing a worn smile like it happened all the time.
“Still,” I said, “Thank you. For stopping. I enjoyed it, even for a little while.”
He slipped away quietly. I watched him go, becoming a warm smudge that lingered in my vision even after he was gone.
David Armstrong is the author of the story collections Going Anywhere and Reiterations. His stories have appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Narrative Magazine, Mississippi Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, Desert Companion Magazine, Best of Ohio Short Stories, and elsewhere. His short fiction has won the Mississippi Review Prize, Yemassee’s William Richey Short Fiction Contest, the New South Writing Contest, and Jabberwock Review’s Nancy D. Hargrove Editors’ Prize for Fiction, among other awards. He is a professor of creative writing at the University of the Incarnate Word, and lives with his wife and his talkative two-year-old son in San Antonio, Texas.
I used to be a film student and a gaffer working lighting on student and independent feature film sets, so I became highly aware of the way light “works,” its colors and intensity, and the way it can paint a moment. I’ve never stopped thinking about light that way. A few years ago, I also stopped at a swap meet where a man was selling old, unopened jars he’d found in a barn—and I wondered at all the things that might be found within. Those two ideas eventually found one another and became this story.
With what fictional character would you most love to spend the day?
Eliot Rosewater, no question. If anyone has all the works of Kilgore Trout, it’s him. And I’ve been looking for any Kilgore Trout book—even just one—for the longest time.
What is your favorite day of the week?
Thursday. I write every day of the week, and teach four. But Thursday, I have three unbroken days of writing ahead. Thursday feels like a big, blank page with endless possibilities.
Which movie have you seen over and over again? What keeps you coming back?
Groundhog Day. I love Bill Murray. Also, I used to work in a video store, and I’d play it while I worked. I’ve probably seen that movie fifty times. For some reason it feels like five hundred, but it never gets old.