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The Lamp of the Body

by Joe Pitkin

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3


Lieutenant Springer’s demeanor was more compassionate than Sandra expected. Sandra’s lapse, he said, was certainly a sign of overwork and poor self-care. He urged her to make use of the counseling offered by their medical plan; he suggested that she not be so hard on herself. However, Sandra’s unprofessional behavior had also drawn her into a disciplinary process that followed a clear, unalterable course: the seriousness of her infractions bought her seven days administrative leave without pay.

Sandra viewed the suspension as a shameful catastrophe, and for the first two days, she stayed in her apartment, scarcely able to haul herself from her bed.

On the third day of her discipline, she managed to make an appointment for an intake evaluation with a counselor at her health management organization. She fixed herself breakfast. For the last two days she had survived on spoonsful of peanut butter and granola bars that she took to bed with her. She washed dishes that had sat in the sink for a week.

Yet, as she finished the dishes, she saw how foul the grout of the backsplash tiles had become, and the sight sapped her again. The black gridlines of mold struck her as indelible and insufferable, and in them she saw herself. She felt as though a curse had descended upon her, that she had been doomed forever to see all around her evidence of stain in her own life.

Yet she could not return to bed. She dressed in her jogging suit, packed a lunch for herself in a little backpack where she also placed her instant camera, although it wasn’t clear to her what occasion she might have to take a picture on her search. She took the train downtown and walked to the spot under the bridge where she had last seen Dora, as if by some sympathetic magic Sandra would see her there again.

When Dora failed to appear, Sandra snapped a photo of the spot where Dora had been: the stone railing where Sandra thought Dora had stood, the snowy pyramid of Mt. Wy’East in the distant background. She reviewed the picture as it developed, hoping that having captured the scene would jostle something in her memory. But nothing happened.

It occurred to her to climb onto the railing as Dora had done. She turned back and took a photo of what Dora would have seen after she turned to face Sandra in alarm.

She had nothing to do today but wander and take pictures. She thought idly how she had never taken photos of any of the landmarks of the city: the train station tower, the ancient churches made into museums, the skyline dominated by the Pharos. She’d had no reason to take such pictures, having lived in the city her whole life. But embarking on such a project lightened her heart a bit, and she climbed the pedestrian stairs of the Hawthorne Bridge with some sense of purpose.

From the other end of the bridge, she could take shots of the skyline. As she crossed, she recognized an opportunity from the middle of the bridge as well, a picture she might take of the other bridges on the Willamette, the silver curves swooping between the two halves of the city.

She stopped in the middle — precisely where Nemesis had picked up the image of Dora with her sack and her long-handled saw — and began to line up a picture of the four glittering bridges to her north. She took a few such shots. Then as an afterthought she turned to face the way she had come and snapped a photo of the overhead traffic sign before her: Lukas Street Northbound, Right Lane, above which perched one of the cameras of Nemesis.

Sandra spent the day as a tourist in this way, hoping always that she might stumble across Dora. The mystery of Dora’s whereabouts had superimposed itself over the mystery of what Dora had seen at Clay and Lukas, which itself was superimposed over the mystery of what Sandra had seen there, which was superimposed over the ultimate mystery of what had really happened there.

She passed by a regular panhandler whom she’d seen many times on the camera feeds. She didn’t know his name, but he was as familiar to her as a hobo movie star. He was a young man with a broad forehead and a thick red beard; she had never seen him with shoes on, nor without a gray flannel blanket draped over his head in the manner of an ancient rabbi. She walked up to him and asked if he knew Dora.

He looked out at her with much the same critical eye that passersby on the street had given her a few days ago when she lugged around Dora’s useless pruning saw and foul bundle. She assumed that the man was mentally ill, maybe schizophrenic. Perhaps he was deciding whether Sandra was a real person asking him a legitimate question.

“Dora’s gone, man.”

“Do you know where she went?” Sandra asked in barely disguised despair.

“She saw something move from night quadrant to day quadrant. She had to follow. I didn’t try to stop her.”

His response struck her as not-nonsense; it seemed like something which, if she were clearer-headed, might make some sense. But such an answer actually felt worse than nonsense to her, for the man was obviously schizophrenic, and she wondered now whether he had seen Dora at all.

If he had seen her, he would be unable to communicate it. She thanked him and moved on, feeling the same urgency she had felt when she had first seen the camera feed of Dora crossing the Hawthorne Bridge.

She returned, at last, to the spot where her psychic ordeal had begun: by the afternoon she stood beneath the dogwood at the corner of Clay and Lukas, in the shadow of the gigantic Pharos. From every conceivable angle she took a picture. The last of these she knew would not develop well: she faced her camera directly into the low sun blaring at her out of the west.

The photograph, when it developed in her instant camera, offered no image but an undifferentiated light. She leaned a long time against the dogwood, that sole other witness, and she waited, as though the photograph might resolve itself into something, or Dora Martus might appear at the intersection, if only she desired it enough.

Perhaps she lost track of time leaning against the tree. When she looked again the sun hung in its final moments on the horizon. Dora Martus stood before her on the corner, watching her sidelong like a rabbit.

Sandra felt the powerful sense that Dora had been watching her a long time. A moment passed before she realized she could speak again. “What did you and I see here?”

“Who can say? What do you think you saw?”

“I don’t know,” Sandra replied. “I haven’t had any peace since I saw it.”

Dora wore the denim jacket from the sack Sandra had left. The pruning saw hung over her shoulder as though it were a useful implement. In fact, it seemed a useful implement to Sandra, a gleaming sharpened scythe. Her flannel shirt was no longer torn, no longer rotten; the buttons were open at her throat and beneath them her breastbone gleamed like a slender moon. All that had confused Sandra in the last days felt for a moment clear and lucid. “If we both saw something here, we must not be crazy.”

But Sandra had shared this insight with no one: Dora had fled in some split second between Sandra’s moment of inspiration and her moment of seeking out Dora’s eyes. Sandra knew then the depth of her solitude and she buried her face in her hands and wept bitterly.

Copyright © 2015 by Joe Pitkin

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