A Light Still Burning

“A Light Still Burning,” New Era, June 1990, 33


A Light Still Burning

Nick Martindell shut off the engine of his pickup truck and grimly tromped down the dirty concrete steps leading to the basement apartment he shared with his best friend, Gordon. He pulled the screen door open. It whined and clattered shut behind him. He wrinkled his nose as he reluctantly took a breath of air. Even for late July the air was hot and humid and the heat in the kitchen was especially stifling, compounding the stale smell of pizza, chips, and unwashed dishes. The apartment was quiet except for the buzz of a dozen fat, lazy flies and the annoying drip of the water faucet.

Bread crumbs littered the table. The trash can in the corner was full and spilling over. A pair of his tennis shoes lay in the middle of the floor, which had not been mopped, and rarely swept, during the last two months that he and Gordon had been there.

He strolled to the refrigerator, pulled it open, and glared inside. A carton of milk, several slices of bread, a half bar of butter spotted with bread and jam, a half bottle of mustard, and several wilted vegetables were all he found. He grabbed the carton of milk, smelled it, grimaced and poured the contents down the sink.

“Gordon,” he called out after slamming the fridge door and kicking his tennis shoes under the table, “you home?”

There was no answer. Nick walked down the narrow hall leading from the kitchen to the bedroom. He pushed the door open. Two boxes and a suitcase partially blocked his way. Gordon sat on the edge of the bed, which was stripped bare to the mattress. He stared up at Nick without moving or speaking.

“What’s all this?” Nick blurted out, pointing down at the boxes and suitcase but making no attempt to enter the room.

“I’m leaving,” Gordon answered, getting up from the bed. He pulled a bulging canvas bag from the closet and set it on the floor next to the rest of his things. “I wanted to tell you before I left.”

Nick straightened up. “I thought we were in this together. This was your idea too.”

Gordon sighed. “It’s no good, Nick. Not for me.”

“It was good enough for you all last year when we planned it,” Nick flared, kicking the boxes aside and coming into the room. “Graduation night that’s all you talked about. You were going to break away from mommy and daddy and get completely away from all that family stuff. You were going to make it on your own as soon as you turned 18. Well, you’re 18.”

“It’s just not my kind of life.”

“It’s freedom. Here we live the way we want to. We come in when we want. We drink and eat when and what we want. Nobody’s telling us what to do. We live the way we want.”

“I guess I didn’t realize life away from home could be so glorious.”

“It’s freedom. That’s what we wanted.”

Gordon smiled wanly. “If this is freedom, slavery can’t be half bad.”

Nick sneered and began pacing the room shaking his head in disgust. “Wanted to be a big man on your own. I guess you found out that someone still had to tuck you in at night and help you say your prayers. All right, what really made you change your mind? I got a right to know. You’re copping out on me, leaving me holding the bag.”

Gordon stared at Nick for a moment, meeting his angry glare. “I was just trying to prove a point. That’s all we’ve ever been doing here—trying to prove a point. I decided the point wasn’t worth proving. We were wrong from the beginning.”

“And what made you decide that?”

Suddenly a crimson anger darkened Gordon’s cheeks and he grabbed at a pile of Nick’s soiled clothes lying in the corner. “I’m sick of this,” he growled, pushing the clothes under Nick’s nose. “I’m sick of yellow sheets that haven’t seen water for two months. I’m sick of dirty dishes in the sink. I’m tired of crumbs and pop spilled all over the kitchen floor. I’m sick of a greasy, grimy, dirty, putrified shower. I’m sick of this whole lousy place. What does living like a couple of pigs prove?”

“Clean it if you don’t like it.”

“It’s not that simple. It’s not like I thought it would be. I just want to …” He paused and added in a quiet voice, “I just want to get out of here. I’m going home.” He stooped and picked up a box and his pillow.

“What really made you change your mind?” Nick challenged. “So the place is a mess. You knew it would be. You told me so yourself when we moved in here. You said we’d probably let things get dirty. Well, we did. Now why are you complaining?”

Placing his box and pillow on the bed, Gordon faced his roommate. “All right. I’ll tell you.” He kicked the closet door closed and leaned against the dresser, looking down at the floor, avoiding Nick’s prying eyes. “You know when we used to plan all this, living away from home and all, I tried to figure out why we were going. You see, I needed a reason. I couldn’t just leave. At the time, finding a reason wasn’t hard. Mom and Dad were too strict. They didn’t understand things. They were always forcing me to do something. There were too many rules. There were lots of bad things about home, and I thought of all of them.”

Gordon glanced up at Nick, who wore a skeptical scowl. “When we came here,” Gordon continued, “I told myself how good it was. I think I believed it then. This was living. We had it made. But there was always something missing. I was kidding myself. Finally I tried to figure out what was missing. I thought about home.” He smiled and shook his head slowly. “I began to remember, not the bad things, not the things that convinced me to come here. No, I remembered the other things, and there were lots of them. Home isn’t so bad, Nick, not half as bad as we’ve tried to prove.”

“You’re quite the preacher. They’ll have you back in church before long,” Nick muttered, falling back on his bed and stuffing his pillow under his head.

“I’ve already gone, two weeks in a row, priesthood, sacrament meeting, the whole bit.”

Nick sat up slowly and swung his feet over the edge of the bed and stared. “I don’t believe it.”

“You know what, Nick? I liked it.” Nick groaned, turned over, and faced the wall. Gordon continued with added enthusiasm. “You know I found out something. I’ve never liked church. You know why? Because I never gave it a chance. I’ve never given a lot of things a chance. I’m not saying home and church and all that is for me, because I don’t know for sure. I just don’t know, not right now. But I tried this way, and this way sure isn’t what we cracked it up to be.” He waited for Nick to respond, but he remained silent. In an act of complete exasperation he slapped the wall with the flat of his hand. “Nick, we’re trying to prove the wrong point! What have we got to show for it?” He snatched the dirty laundry and flung it across the room. “All we got are some dirty jeans, some stale socks and a crumby, sticky, gummed up kitchen. Big deal! I want out. This is …”

“Gordon,” Nick interrupted, “you know what? You depress me. In fact, the last couple of weeks I’ve become depressed every time I’ve seen you.”

Gordon countered with a knowing smile. He shook his head and said, “Nick, you’re always depressed. I don’t have anything to do with it. You’re just mad at the whole world. One of these days you’re going to wake up and find that the world was never mad back and that all this other never proved anything.”

“You know where the door is, or do you want me to take you by the hand?” Nick asked, his face pinched with anger.

Gordon shrugged, bent over, and picked up two of his boxes and walked out of the bedroom. Several minutes later he was back for the rest of his things. As he picked them up, Nick rolled over and asked dryly, “And you’re leaving me holding the bag? What about the rent? Remember this was your idea too.”

Gordon nodded toward the dresser. “There’s an envelope on the dresser. It’s next month’s rent money, all of it, not just half.”

The two stared at each other. Neither spoke. Finally Gordon gathered up his remaining things and turned to go. “Soon they’ll be calling you on a mission,” Nick laughed sardonically. “Elder Patrick Gordon Crandell, all decked out in his white shirt and tie and his hair shaved to the skin.”

Without turning around, Gordon replied calmly, “You know, that doesn’t sound so bad.”

As soon as Nick heard the kitchen door close and Gordon’s departing footsteps, he reared up and hurled his pillow across the room where it slammed into the door, closing it with a reverberating bang.

For half an hour Nick lay on his bed. He closed his eyes and tried to sleep, attempting to block the entire day from his mind, but it was too early in the afternoon. Sleep eluded him.

He felt hungry. He sat up and stepped to his dresser where he kept a supply of candy bars, but he slammed the dresser drawer as soon as he had opened it. He didn’t want candy. He was tired of eating candy bars, chips, and cookies. He wanted some real food, something like … But he refused to think of that. That was over, in the past. He wouldn’t follow Gordon back. He opened the drawer again, snatched a candy bar, ripped off the wrapper and angrily crammed the candy into his mouth. No, he wouldn’t go back. He was free here.

He returned to his bed, but an enigmatic hunger persisted, not a mere pang but an annoying desire for something satisfying, something that didn’t really have anything to do with food. He had felt this pang before, but he had tried to hide it from himself.

Eventually he crawled from the bed and went to the kitchen, hoping to find relief. Instead, a flood of nauseating disgust swept over him.

He left the apartment, got into the pickup, and drove, nowhere in particular, just someplace, any place away from … Well, he just wanted to drive, he told himself. He was not running, just leaving for a time.

Soon he found himself out of town, driving into the country along the narrow country road that looped around the foot of the mountain and passed through the small farms. The road was familiar. He’d traveled it often. It frustrated him that he was even driving there now, but he continued. After all, it was just a drive, like any other drive. It didn’t mean anything.

Five miles out of town he stopped in front of a frame house set back a hundred feet from the road in a grove of elm and poplar trees. The station wagon that usually occupied a place under the giant elm tree was missing. No one was home. He could tell.

He sat in the truck for several minutes before finally opening the door and stepping out. He looked up and down the highway furtively and then walked across the road and up to the front door. The door opened. Of course, he knew it would. They never locked it. He swallowed hard and walked in.

A rich, tantalizing aroma of baked bread lingered in the air and soon enveloped him. Unconsciously he breathed deeply, feeding hungrily upon the aroma—and the memories it inspired.

The kitchen sink was clean, no piled dishes there. The floor was swept and mopped to a pleasant glow. The plastic garbage container was empty and free of foul odors. He breathed deeply of the clean air and moved about the house, touching the sink, opening the fridge, glancing into the bathroom, sitting momentarily on the sofa to thumb through magazines. He was unable to explain his behavior. It baffled him, and yet he felt compelled to linger.

In his reverie he almost forgot the time. Half an hour passed. They would be home soon. Suddenly he realized that he didn’t want them to find him here, coming back, even though it was just to see. They would misunderstand, see it as a surrender, a weakening.

As he got up from the living room sofa, he noticed his picture hanging on the wall with those of his parents and brothers and sisters. It startled him. He stared, confused. The picture’s presence seemed so incongruous. He had assumed that when he had walked away, coldly abandoning them, that they would naturally reject him. His picture loudly proclaimed otherwise.

He started for the front door. As he was about to leave, he saw the loaf of homemade bread lying on the table next to a jar of strawberry preserves, his favorite, some she had made. There was a note under the bottle. He pulled it out and read: “Nick, we went to the park for a picnic. Come and join us if you can. We would love to have you with us, but we will understand if you can’t. Take the bread and jam. We love you, Mom.”

The note fluttered to the floor. “How did she know?” he whispered angrily, feeling as though he had been observed during his surreptitious visit. He picked up the note and read it again. There was no rebuke, no mention of his weeks of silence, no mention of his absence, his rebellion, his complaining. There was merely a quiet, subtle invitation to … He was not coming back! He crumpled the note. He didn’t need them. He would not give them the satisfaction.

He started for the door, leaving the bread on the table, but he stopped before going out. The old hunger returned and coaxed him. He glanced back. Taking the bread didn’t mean anything, he thought. A loaf of bread was a loaf of bread. He could buy one at the store if he wanted to. A loaf of bread didn’t mean he had given up. So he did come back. It was just a visit. He didn’t have anything to do. What was wrong with taking a ride and stopping someplace? He was independent.

Amid his own personal debate, he returned to the table and roughly grabbed the bread and preserves. He held them in his hand, pondering. Finally he turned and left.

Almost an hour after he left, a station wagon pulled under the elm tree. Doors burst open and seven children tumbled out. The five younger ones raced for the house. The two older ones walked, loaded with blankets, a jug, and a picnic basket.

An older man and woman stepped from the car. Exhausted but satisfied smiles touched their lips as they watched the young ones storm into the house.

The woman was the first to enter the kitchen. As she did, her gaze went to the kitchen table, as it had done so many times during the last two months. At first she disbelieved, wondering whether she had forgotten in her rush to get away to the park. Then she saw the crumpled note. The bread and the preserves were gone!

Trembling, she sat down at the table and looked up at her husband who now stood behind her. “I knew it,” she whispered. “I knew he couldn’t forget forever.”

“It doesn’t mean he’s coming back,” he cautioned. He remembered too well the hurts she had suffered. He didn’t want her snatching at elusive hopes.

She smiled and nodded with maternal intuition. “I know,” she replied, “but he was here. For now that’s enough.”

When Nick arrived at his apartment, he tossed the bread and preserves on the table and looked in the fridge. It was as bare as when he had left. Ignoring the bread, he went into his bedroom, turned on the radio and tried to wash away the memory with music and disc jockey jabber, but his escape was a feeble attempt.

Angrily he jumped from the bed and began snatching sweaty, soiled shirts, pants and socks from the floor and stuffing them into a canvas bag in the closet. He folded his blanket and pulled the sheet on his bed tight. Grabbing a T-shirt from his drawer, he attacked the accumulation of dirt and dead flies on his dresser and on the windowsill.

He returned to the kitchen, determined to push the job to its completion. The dishes went first, and while they dried in the sink, he filled a bucket with water, found a brush and rag and fell to his knees on the kitchen floor.

With his jaw clamped tight, he attacked the loathsome floor, digging and gouging at the sticky pop stains, the ground-in catsup and honey spots, and the two months’ buildup of outside dirt and grease. He became oblivious to time. His thoughts and energy were riveted to one thing—the eradication of the suffocating filth.

It was late when he finally stopped. His knees were tender, his arm and shoulder ached, and his fingers were wrinkled. But the apartment was clean. A grim satisfaction was carved upon his brow as he wandered throughout the apartment, surveying his work. However, his satisfaction was short-lived. Though he had succeeded at imitation, there was a blatant absence of something impalpable but much more substantial. The old craving persisted.

He became desperate. He cut himself a slice of his mother’s bread and smothered it with strawberry preserves, but when he was finished he was still unsatisfied. There was no escape from the pervasive, lonely depression.

Once more he fled from the apartment. This time he didn’t encounter a single car as he drove along the old familiar country road. The whole while he ridiculed himself for returning, but he didn’t turn back. He lacked the will to rationalize, and his mind was bombarded with memories.

He remembered, not the seeming strict discipline, not the rules he had tried to escape or circumvent, not the arguments, not the usual memories he had conditioned himself to conjure when he was tormented by sentimental reminiscence. Instead he remembered the quiet visits with his father, before the contention had developed. He remembered how safe and secure he had felt as his father wrapped a strong arm around his shoulders and drew him close. He remembered his mother sitting by his hospital bed for days after his knee operation. There was little she could do, but she was there, wiping his brow, holding his hand and lending him stability in the midst of strange surroundings. He recalled the vocal cheering section that had followed him to all his football and baseball games. He had been embarrassed at the time, but now he yearned to hear those enthusiastic cheers again.

The pickup slowed to a crawl as he neared the house. The station wagon was parked under the giant elm. The house was completely dark. Except for the lone porch light!

“I wonder who’s still out?” Nick thought instinctively. He remembered that the porch light never dimmed as long as one of the family was out. Even when he worked past midnight at Ernie’s Cafe, he had come home to that beckoning porch light.

“And when you come home,” his mother had insisted gently, “stop by our room and tell us you’re in. I don’t sleep well while someone’s still out.”

Nick looked at his watch. “Almost 3:00 A.M.,” he muttered, bewildered. “Teresa can’t still be out on a date. Not this late. Midnight is as late as she can stay out. And Paul doesn’t work nights. And none of the little ones would be away.”

Suddenly the buried hunger exploded within him and he knew for whom the light burned and he knew that during the last two months the light had never been switched off.

Only then did he begin to comprehend the strange hunger that had plagued him. He knew it had nothing to do with tangibles—clean sheets, waxed floors, and fresh baked bread. With a little effort he could duplicate those. There was something else, something far more significant and fulfilling.

His fierce pride prevented him from making any bold concessions this night, but deep within him there was a quiet serenity. There was still a gap between him and them. Having grown and festered over a period of months, it was deep and wide, but as Nick stared at the porch’s enduring beacon, he sensed that the gap would be bridged and he could return.

Illustration by Paul Mann