THE BROKEN HEADLAMP

~ A CHILDHOOD STORY ~

by Carole W

Still at the study table, his science text propped open against a fortress of leather-bound tomes, Vincent pretended to make notes with every page turn. Marguerite, his teacher, sat at the front of the room, grading the in-class themes written earlier that morning. Answer this, she’d instructed the class. If I Were a Character in My Favorite Book … 

His essay had been inspired, he thought, detailing the color of silk for the envelope, the size and rough twist of the rigging ropes, the weave of the wicker gondola – the hot-air balloon that might fly him to Verne’s Mysterious Island, the very novel he was surreptitiously rereading instead of memorizing the geologic eras for the upcoming test. Every now and then she’d laugh out loud as she read. He peeked over his barricade, wondering if she’d come yet to his work and saw her brow suddenly wrinkle, her eyes narrow. For a moment he thought she might be sad, but she looked up and met his studied gaze … smiled at him. Most likely a dangling participle, he decided. Or a split infinitive. Those made her heart hurt, she said. There were none in his story – he’d made sure of that. He turned a page. Pleistocene, he registered … barely … and penciling an indecipherable squiggle in his notebook, he crash-landed on what Verne’s castaways would soon name Lincoln Island.

Ahhh.”

She bent over his shoulder. No time to hide the evidence of his ruse.

“Where is Cyrus now?” she asked. “And Bonadventure? Have they found Jupiter yet?”

She wasn’t mad. She was new to his world, a Topsider Below only for the school day, but she understood … everything.

Father had introduced her as Miss Downing but she told the class they could call her Miss D. And he did when he spoke to her, but in his mind, he repeated her name. Marguerite. Marguerite. A flower, he’d discovered. The moon daisy.

“Don’t you want your lunch, Vincent?”

He might have remained all afternoon in his chair – reading, talking, dreaming, speaking of dreams – but the aroma of baking bread curled through the tunnels, a toasty scent teasing him at last from his seat. He could taste the crusty heel of a just-cooled loaf spread with sweet butter and honey and when he shuffled around the corner into the dining hall, he would swear even the light from the kitchen was a golden toasty brown.

“No way,” he heard Devin contend.

A huddle of boys shifted foot to foot in the far corner of the room. A yellow energy ricocheted from the group. Let’s go, he heard, though no one had spoken in the wake of Devin’s argument.

Devin drew himself up taller, straighter, lifted his nose and sniffed in disdain, his expression one Vincent would label – had anyone asked – bossy. But a twitch of excitement played at the corner of Devin’s mouth. Something was up.

“He’d have to be a hundred years old … I don’t believe it,” Devin said.

“Believe what?” Vincent asked, slipping into the circle. “Who’s a hundred?”

“That old guy – Avi – says he knew Teddy Roosevelt,” Mitch said. “Says he was a reporter when Roosevelt was Police Commissioner and he saw ‘em.”

“Avi’s not a hundred,” Vincent confirmed.

“See.” Devin sniffed again and glared around the circle. “What’d I tell you.”

“He just turned ninety-eight,” Vincent said, rubbing his chin. “That means he was born in … 1866. He’d have been twenty-nine when Roosevelt–”

“Show off,” Devin mumbled. Noah and Pascal snorted into their fists.

Mitch shoved his hands in his pockets. “So it’s the truth, then.”

“It might be true,” Devin said, the twitch in his shoulders now. “I don’t doubt there’re tunnels underneath the police headquarters building, and I don’t doubt they connected to the bars across the street. We’ve all heard those stories. What I do doubt is there’s a sub-basement full of old motorcycles, all lined up on their kickstands and still filled with gas.”

“Avi didn’t say there was a line,” Vincent offered. “Just two or three in pieces for parts. And they’re in the old police stable on Mulberry Street, not under the station.

Devin rounded on him. “What? You’ve heard that story too?”

Vincent shrugged.   “But what’s that got to do with Teddy Roosevelt?” He was confused. They’d finished the unit on turn-of-the-century New York City just weeks earlier. Devin was older and Noah schooled in another part of the tunnels, but Pascal and Mitch were in his class. Had they forgotten already? “Police Headquarters moved to Centre Street in 1909 and in 1911 Waldo Rhinelander motorized the–”

“Think about it, Dev.” Mitch cut him off, his eyes wide. “If there’s even one … one! A 1912 Indian, the old man said. We drag it back piece by piece if we have to, fix it up. We can get Winslow to help us with the metal work and the motor. Get the crazy lady to help us with the paint.”

A sudden sharpness stung the air and he swallowed against it. “Elizabeth’s not crazy,” Vincent protested. “She’s sad.”

“Whatever,” Mitch said, turning his back on him. “As I was saying. We fix up the bike, sell it. We’ll make a bundle. Let’s grab a map when Father’s not looking. Get going.”

“Not now,” Devin asserted. “I’ve got one more afternoon of kitchen duty and I’m not skipping it. I don’t need any more trouble. And Pascal, you’ve got an apprentice hour, don’t you? It’s a hike anyway. Tomorrow’s Saturday. We could leave early, pack a lunch. The bikes aren’t going anywhere.”

“I don’t want to wait,” Mitch said. “I vote we go tonight. No, I’m going tonight. Right after supper. Who’s with me?”

* * *

They met in the junction under Columbus Circle. Pascal came with three empty duffles; Noah, a canvas bag of wrenches; Devin with cookies from the kitchen in a crumpled paper sack and five flashlights bound together with an old book strap. Empty-handed when he arrived, Mitch scuffed the dirt in answer to the group’s questioning look. Vincent pulled the scrolled map from his knapsack and spread it on the ground.

“I asked Avi,” he began. “There’s an entrance below Old St. Patrick’s. We have to go up … here … then we follow the steam pipes to the youth center and from there, we ladder down a maintenance shaft to the sub-basement and then again to another first-level tunnel. Then … north.” He traced a path to a red-inked -X- a block from their entry point. “The police station was here. It’s been torn down for an apartment building but the stables are still underneath. They were a level down – down a ramp with big double doors to the outside at both ends. There’s a trap door into one of the stalls, Avi said. The bikes are in the tack room. ”

“Or they were, sixty-something years ago.” Devin sighed. “Down a maintenance shaft. Of course. Lemme see the map. We’re gonna need another way out if we find anything.”

* * *

Fresh air whooshed from the trap door, the first in the stale room in decades. The soot and the dust of old hay, the cobwebs and the dark made it hard to breathe. They sneezed into the crooks of their arms and sssshhhhed each other as they crept along a narrow alley between two rows of stalls. The grated doors sagged on their hinges; wrought iron hay racks drooped from one last corroded bolt. Underneath a warped wooden bucket, Vincent found a horseshoe and an old Barber quarter. In the beam of his flashlight he could read the date – 1898 – but Liberty’s bust was worn smooth, the thirteen stars mere shades of their original relief, the eagle on the reverse just discernible. Who might have carried it last, he wondered, slipping it into his pocket, thumbing the cool silver.

“What’s that?” Mitch played his light over the splintered slats of the last bay. Inside, something shimmered glinty-gray, dull rust-red. He squeezed through the reluctant gate, dropped to his knees before a pile of debris. The others crowded in behind.

“Somebody stand guard.” At Mitch’s heels, Devin hissed instructions from the side of his mouth.

“Nobody’s been down here in ages.” Noah protested, but even as he spoke, he acquiesced, retreating to just outside the tack room. “Is it an Indian, Mitch?” he called through the wooden bars. “Is it?”

A half-moon of fender, a flat footrest, a luggage rack … the pile at his side grew. Mitch uttered a yelp of conquest and dragged out the gas tank – brick red, dented and missing it’s fuel cap, the letters I-n-d still legible, the i-a-n lost to scratches.

“That’s it?” Pascal asked and Mitch groaned.

“There’s gotta be more. Check the other stalls again. Maybe there’s another level.” Mitch elbowed past Pascal, strobing the walls and floor, even the ceiling with the flashlight. Devin growled and ran after him.

Vincent stayed behind, crouched before the meager pile of parts, shining his own light. No handlebars, no rims, no seat. There was barely the shadow of a motorcycle left behind. He’d be sorry to tell Avi what they’d found … or didn’t find. He could hear Noah’s low laugh and Pascal’s quick step, but Mitch’s  grouse and stomp told him no  riches manifested in any other dark niche. Time to go, he figured … but there … Wait. A sparkle.

He crawled forward on hands and knees, pulled away folds of cloth still supple with pomade, some frayed leather harness … Aha! A broken headlamp, the lens missing, the bowl of it jagged on the edges but intact … silvery, dimly reflective. He turned it in his hands, saw in it one wide eye, grayish in the low light, a ridge of dirt on his face in a dark slash along his cheek … movement behind him. He startled and whirled, a rumble in his throat.

“A wild goose chase, huh,” Devin muttered, sweeping the room with the flashlight. “What’cha got there?”

He passed over the shard and Devin shook his head. “You’re keeping this? Why?”

“It’s neat.” He opened his knapsack and shoved in some shreds of newsprint for cushioning.

“If you say so.” Devin stooped and pointed and reached into the rubble. “Look. Here’s another one. In better shape too.” He grinned. “Double neat.”

The two headlights nested together, Vincent wrapped them in one of the rags from the pile. “Double neat,” he agreed.

Devin pushed up from his knees, hooked his thumb over his shoulder. “Let’s motor, Vincent. Noah’s grandpa gave him a dollar. We can get some ice cream on the way home.”

* * *

He was first to their chamber, Devin having taken the long way home, detouring around Father’s well-lit study, hopeful this once, he said, to have a weekend free from extra chores. Vincent drew the two scoops of metal from his pack. One was nearly perfect, its rim nipped in just two places, its center shining … but the second was shallower and hazed, cracked. Not good enough for what he had in mind. He set the lesser one aside, atop a stack of books near the doorway, books destined for return to the library. When next he cleaned his room, he’d take it to the scrap metal heap. 

The best of the two cradled in his hands, he trotted to his desk, held the reflector to the candelabra. In it, the mirrored flames danced. Perhaps he could polish it to a high burnish, shape a rimmed wooden bowl in which to nestle it. He’d seen one in a book. Dream Bowls, they were called. Wishing Bowls. Franklin might help him turn such a vessel on his lathe, give him sandpaper and stain. Perhaps Elizabeth might paint pale, petaled flowers on the chrome. Moon daisies. For Marguerite. He opened his wardrobe, snugged the prize to a protected corner behind his folded flannel shirts. Tomorrow … or the next day, or Monday after school, he’d visit the wood shop, maybe search out Elizabeth and her far-flung canvases. Christmas was still a few months away; he had time. Perhaps he might even write a–

Devin skidded into the room, from the doorway underhanding a flashlight onto his bed in a high, practiced arc. It landed dead-center with a whoomp. He spied the broken lamp and snatched it up. “Look sharp!” Devin crowed, lobbing it his way.

He trapped the shard in a soft, two-handed basket catch and thought to fling it back, but a shadow within it stopped him and he stared into the concavity. A fog swirled there … but in a flash of clearing he saw a gray-green eye, a dark, jagged track on a pale cheek … Not mine! Whose? He held his breath, blinked … and laughed at his fancy.

A trick of the light, he told himself. With his shirtsleeve, he wiped away a murk of condensation and grime from the chrome bowl, strangely disappointed and somehow … just as strangely … hopeful.

“There’s a party,” Devin announced. “Sebastian’s here. And Noah’s grandpa says he’s got something for us. Olivia and Rebecca are making popcorn. You want some, toss that piece of junk and make tracks.”

A party! Popcorn!

The top of his carved cabinet was crowded with treasures of undecided worth – cast-offs wanting new purpose. A brass pressure gauge, one Winslow said was from a deep-sea diving bell. An Asian meditation gong for which he’d long ago lost the striking hammer. A small gold sphinx,  a microphone from a Vaudeville stage. An old air pump they might have used for the motorcycle’s tires. Not junk. Important things. Things worth keeping. He gazed into the bowl again, saw only his own blue eye, a flash of white tooth. He wedged the headlamp in beside an alabaster bust, turned it so the flicker of candlelight danced danced inside.

Toss it? He … couldn’t.

 

Originally published as one of the Keepsake Stories, found in Vincent’s Chamber, WFOL 2011.

10 Comments

  1. “A fog swirled there … but in a flash of clearing he saw a gray-green eye, a dark, jagged track on a pale cheek … Not mine! Whose? He held his breath, blinked … and laughed at his fancy.”

    Oooh, Carole! A vision of things to come!

    This is such a marvelous story. I see names that hint at your northern Tunnel community — Noah and his grandpa — the “Isolationists,” as Father calls them in your AU. And, of course, young Mitch, mercenary and selfish as ever.

    And now we know how that broken headlamp came to live on top of Vincent’s cabinet, waiting for its moment in Vincent and Catherine’s history together. Biding its time.

    How splendid!

    HUGS,

    Karen/Lindariel

    Reply
    • Thank you for reading this story … again! I’m always encouraged by your kind words. 😀

      Reply
  2. Carole, what a wonderful journey back to Vicent’s youth, his learning, outings with the boys he grew up with. You can see here his respect for others, empathy, willingness to learn,sensitivity…. I see a boy full of dreams…And wonderful is this vision in the headlamp, although he didn’t know why, he could not throw it away he felt how important this thing is…already then fate gave a sign about the end of his loneliness. Carole this is beautiful! Thank you for this!

    Reply
    • A lovely read , early Vincent. I loved it from start to finish.
      Very good how it tells how it couldn’t part with things.
      We rescue dogs no one else will home. My latest is Vincent a Mallinois cross. He’s got golden fur reddish tint . No one would give him a chance. He’s turned out a soppy loving sop
      Very Vincent
      Beautiful story thankyou

      Reply
      • Thank you for reading, Karen. I’m so happy you enjoyed it. I love dogs too – another thing that bonds us!

        Reply
    • Thank you, Paula. You’ve found exactly what I hoped you would in this story. I’m really glad you liked it.

      Reply
  3. You know I love the … coalescing of destiny in your stories. This one is a special favorite. Vincent has always quested and found the beauty of things tossed aside, either because of who he is (most likely,) and/or how he was raised. Seeing the inklings of how this trait will effect his destiny … wonderful. ❤️

    Thank you for this.

    Reply
    • Ahh, Karen. You are so kind. I’m inspired and encouraged to keep doing this writing thing. Thank you for finding what I hoped you would in it.

      Reply
  4. Carole time warp a vision a premonition of Catherine. But what a wonderful “how did he get that mirror/headlamp?” Thank you

    Reply
    • Thanks for reading, PearlAnn! There had to be a reason why Vincent kept the things he did. The piece of broken headlamp seemed just waiting to be found by Catherine. I wanted to tell its story. 🙂

      Reply

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