The Lightbulb Babies
‘The dead, the gentle dead – who knows? –
In tungsten filaments abide,
And on my bedside table glows
Another man’s departed bride.”
–Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
Webern Bell biked down the street under a sharp scythe of moon, an upside-down goldfish bowl on his head. It bounced and bumped against his nose as he wobbled across the asphalt, but he barely noticed. He was a stoic spaceman, exploring new worlds, and, for spacemen, the helmet was a weightless necessity, a second skin. In his mouth, he held one end of a bright green garden hose, for oxygen, while his pudgy legs pedaled furiously.
The sky brightened above Webern, but he paid no attention. Sunrises and sunsets were among the celestial pyrotechnics ignored by his hero, Space Ace Grin McCase, who looked on, arms akimbo, as moons collided and planets do-se-doed. If an enemy star imploded, McCase might declare, “Don’t mess with America, fiends!” but that was about as contemplative as he ever got. McCase would never cry if he looked too late in the direction of a falling star, or if the new moon left his room a bottomless pitch-black pit. Webern admired that.
Webern rode on past new houses with windows empty as skull sockets, then turned left out of his subdivision. Here, on real roads, he had to be particularly careful not to cause an accident. In his early childhood, accidents had been forgivable and forgettable by nature. One of his earliest memories was of his mother taking a shattered snow globe out of his hands with just that soothing word, accident. Time had been soft then, as if it could be re-molded into a dozen different shapes. But now he knew it was as hard and inflexible as the metal brace that stretched up his crooked back. He had learned it wasn’t enough just to look both ways.
Dinging the bell on his bike basket, holding his goldfish bowl helmet on with one hand, and wailing like a siren, he swerved out onto the road.
“Watch out!” he screamed. “Low-flying spacecraft!”
The end of the garden hose fell from his open mouth. It whipped and snapped against the concrete as he flew into traffic. Studebakers, Fords, and Buicks flashed by, their round headlights like the surprised glowing eyes of robots. Webern had not always biked to school, and he was still getting used to it.
He attended a soot-stained brick block that looked like a factory. Jungle gyms and monkey bars cast prison door shadows in its yard, and before class in the mornings, classmates idled there like inmates, occasionally bursting into brief, violent games. The garbage dump sat next door, so vultures circled above. With their bald, naked heads, they resembled old men dressed in bird suits, and, during recess, Webern had often seen them swoop dangerously low, their talons reaching out like old hands. He watched them now as he turned onto the playground with its chalky ghosts of four-square and hopscotch. Languidly, as if doing him a great favor, four or five left their perch atop the swing set and slowly glided toward him. Their shriveled, shrunken heads wrinkled intelligently as they flapped. Staring up at their outstretched wings, the hunchbacked boy suddenly felt afraid to get off of his bicycle. He wheeled around and ran smack into the tetherball post.
“Bernie needs a gurney! Bernie needs a gurney!”
For a long moment, flat on his back, Webern thought that the girls were right. He needed a doctor – he couldn’t get up – his skull lay in pieces around him! Then, gingerly touching his forehead, he realized that his goldfish bowl helmet had shattered, but that he was still, mercilessly, living.
“Eww! He’s bleeding!” shrieked the loudest girl, a fish-faced wonder named Betsy Smothers. “Look everybody! Gurney Bernie’s bleeding! I’m telling!”
“Does Bernie Wernie need a nursie worsey?” gurgled Debbie Bludgeon.
Webern sat up. A drop of crimson fell onto his yellow shorts. He imagined that, in zero gravity, the girls’ skirts would flip up over their faces, suffocating them.
“I’m OK,” he mumbled, picking shards off his red and yellow striped shirt, buying time. There was a limit to how long they could torture him.
Sure enough, the bell rang, and children began pouring, grudgingly but with impressive speed, into the glass-and-metal double doors of the school. Betsy and Debbie dissolved into the flood without another word. Webern wheeled his bicycle over to the metal rack. Next to the other boys’, it looked like a shy little sister. Streamers dangled from its handlebars like shiny pigtails. Webern patted its white wicker basket affectionately, then looked around quickly to make sure that no one had seen him. Just as he suspected, though , he was the last one left outside the building.
Gravity is my enemy, Webern thought as he dragged himself through the double doors and up the endless stairs. Gravity and vultures and little, little girls. Just then, above his head, the bell jangled a second time. Great. He was officially late to class. He slumped against the banister, staring up accusingly, but the ding-a-ling, a brass circle mounted high on the wall, looked back as dead dumb as a doorknob. As Webern tried to imagine what mechanism inside could create such a jarring sound, Wags climbed out of the bell, holding a large metal hammer.
“Sorry about that, chum. Just doing my job,” the little guy said, affably tucking the hammer into the waistband of his lederhosen.
“No, no, I understand.” Webern smiled wanly. Next to Space Ace Grin McCase, Wags was still Webern’s favorite person. But today Webern just wasn’t in the mood for camaraderie. “Can’t talk now. I’m on a crater reconnaissance mission.”
Wags saluted him and hopped back inside the bell. Webern continued up the stairs. He smelled paste and chalk dust and pencil shavings and something else, something metallic and unpleasant that he couldn’t put his finger on. It took him a long moment before he realized it was his own blood, still dripping freely down his cheek. When Webern got to the top of the stairs, he started down the hall toward his classroom, then reconsidered and headed for the boy’s bathroom instead.
The bathroom didn’t have a door, just a twisty entrance that reminded him of a maze. Inside, milky white light poured through the frosted windows. Webern usually hid here a couple of times each day. Sometimes, the incessant plunk of water drops and the bucket gray stalls made him feel like he’d fallen down a well, but he tried not to think about it this morning. His face hurt too much.
The mirror hung too high up on the wall for Webern to look into, which usually suited him fine; in his experience, mirrors tended to hold unpleasant surprises. But today he needed to see. He flipped a trash can upside down and scooted it noisily across the floor, then stepped on top of it. A shallow scrape stretched down his cheek, bleeding. Webern touched it gingerly, then hopped back down. He tore off a long strip of toilet paper and pressed it against the gash, the way he’d seen his father do after a bloody shave. Then he sat down on the upside-down trash can and set his backpack on his knees.
First he took out his lunchbox. Emblazoned with the radiant image of Space Ace Grin McCase brandishing a ray gun, the tin box declared, “Invaders, Go Home!” Webern unlatched the metal closure and flipped open the top. His sandwich, black with mold, had been prepared with horseradish and, from the looks of it, chewing tobacco, but at least today nothing was squirming inside. Webern got up, opened the frosted glass window a few inches, and shoved the sandwich out. The vultures attacked before it even hit the ground.
Webern’s mother used to pack him sandwiches with homemade jelly and white bread so soft it stuck to his teeth. She’d sent hunks of cake with icing thick as toothpaste. But now the job of meal preparation had fallen to his sisters. Willow and Billow were witches, Webern knew, and he saw them always outlined in thick black, like villains cut from a picture book and clumsily pasted into his world. This was not the first time they’d sabotaged his lunch.
Webern sat back down on the trash can. He set aside the lunchbox and pulled out his book, Space Flight: The Coming Exploration of the Universe. Its cover featured a perfect rocket in flight. The white cone of the spacecraft, as smooth as a crayon’s tip, was marred only by a single bubble, a clear glass dome through which smiling spacemen peered. On the book’s pages, similar fellows manned the controls, or chased floating sandwiches that hovered, tantalizingly, just out of their reach. Webern eagerly turned past these pictures to the dog-eared page where he’d left off. Next to the text stood a bulbous space suit, multicolored and empty, just waiting for a wearer.
“Candidates for space travel must be young- not more than eighteen when applying for training- and cannot be too tall or overweight. The spaceman must be willing to make great sacrifice,” Webern read. “He will be in a world by himself, with his air in a tank on his back, and clumsy claws to use as hands and feet. He will have nothing around him to give him a feeling of security. He can’t fall, but any fear of height will make him feel he’s falling, and such panic could be very dangerous to him – and to others. Tests will weed out those who cannot tolerate flight into outer space.”
Webern sucked his thumb thoughtfully. Gravity was his enemy, sure; it bent him, stooped him, made him scuffle. But this idea of a test made him nervous. He wondered if the spacemen in training had a chance to prepare, or if something just happened out of the blue. What would it be like if some unexplained force lifted him, helpless and swimming, out of his gray white well?
“Hey there, Sonny.”
The book leapt off Webern’s knees, and he tipped over backwards. Mr. Hull, who looked like an old bird in a man suit, towered in the doorway. He taught the sixth grade, and Webern was only in third. Webern had never seen a grown-up in the boy’s bathroom before; next to Mr. Hull, the sinks looked like something from a dollhouse.
“Shouldn’t you be gettin’ along to class now?” the old man drawled. “Lost your way?”
“Yessir.” Webern crawled around on all fours, jamming book and lunchbox into his bag. The capsized trash can rolled on its side.
“Shouldn’t you be making it chop-chop?”
“All right then.”
With a jerk of his head, Mr. Hull marched out of the bathroom. Webern scuttled close behind, clutching his backpack to his chest. Mr. Hull walked briskly, with his arms swinging and his beak high in the air; the bulletin boards rustled as he passed. He stopped at Webern’s classroom and, when the boy caught up, he swung open the frosted glass door.
“Found him dawdling in the potty.” The words rolled off Mr. Hull’s tongue, as if nothing could be more predictable. He gave Webern a little push, and the boy stumbled into the room as the class erupted in laughter.
“Well, then,” said Mrs. Welninski as Webern found his seat. “I guess that finishes off the attendance. Debbie, will you take this to the principal?”
Debbie Bludgeon hopped up and obediently retrieved the attendance sheet as Mrs. Welninski rose from her desk. Mrs. Welninski was a large, mannish woman with short curled hair and a nose like an edible root. Her square shoulders reminded Webern of the playing cards from Alice in Wonderland, but he didn’t make jokes or call her names, as some of the children did, because Mrs. Welninski was one adult he did not hate. Around the time his sandwiches changed from jelly to mudpie-and-salamander, other adults had looked at him earnestly and said things about Jesus and the angels and how he had to be extra brave. Mrs. Welninski was the only one who looked right at him and admitted she didn’t know what to say. Webern replied that he didn’t know either, and since then, they’d gotten along just fine.
At the front of the classroom, Mrs. Welninski blew her potato-shaped nose on a yellow hanky.
“Guess I’m Mrs. Ill-ninski today,” she joked. She strode across the room to the closet and returned to her desk with a cardboard box. “Gather round, everybody.”
Webern perked up at this. It was usually a good sign when she told them to get up from their seats, though not as good as when she told them to get their coats. By the time he hobbled over, a forest of shoulders had sprung up around the big desk, but he sidled in to get a look.
As she opened the cardboard box, Mrs. Welninski gave a little speech, probably memorized and obviously untrue. She said that a friend of hers had asked her to baby-sit, but although the little ones were quiet and well-behaved individually, there were altogether too many for her to keep an eye on. So would the class help her out? Even those who still believed in Santa were doubtless skeptical that a grown woman would tote twenty-odd infants to school in a cardboard box, then farm them out to third-graders, but they were willing to play along. Mrs. Welninski gently placed wee ones, bundled in tissue. into the cupped hands of each student. Some of the girls even cooed and cuddled them.
The babies, limbless, pear-shaped, and gleaming, were light bulbs with faces painted near their spiraling metal hats. They lolled drunkenly from side to side if placed on their convex bottoms, and had a tendency to roll when placed on their backs. Mrs. Welninski explained that each student would be responsible for keeping his light bulb baby safe and clean.
“But what if something happens on accident?” asked Gap McLewan, who had already shoved his foster child into the mucky catacombs of his untidy desk.
Mrs. Welninski replied, as she so often did, by writing a fifty-cent word on the blackboard.
“Anyone know what this means?” she asked. I-R-R-E-V-O-C-A-B-L-E. Gap slammed his desk shut, and from somewhere inside came a glassy crunch. “It means the damage can’t be undone. No accidents, kids.”
Just then, the windows of the classroom began to vibrate as a deafening wail filled the school. To Webern, it always sounded like a race car accelerating toward a crash, but louder, scarier. And it seemed to go on forever, too. The first few times they’d heard the siren, the kids had been terrified, disorderly; some of the girls had started crying, and one boy had wet his pants. But this time, Mrs. Welninski didn’t even have to tell the class what to do, they’d been having these air raid drills so often. Obediently, quickly, the children crawled under their desks, bent forward, and put their arms over their heads, like a bunch of turtles.
Sliding down from his chair, Webern wondered if they really thought this would save them. He never bothered to shield his skull; anyway, today he’d brought his light bulb baby under the desk with him, so he didn’t have a free hand for it. As the dusty floor trembled with the sound of the siren and his hump pressed uncomfortably against the underside of the desk, he stared into her little painted face. It was small and bright with star-shaped yellow eyes and a pink heart for a mouth. He decided to name her Sunshine.
For the rest of the morning, Webern wouldn’t set his light bulb baby down. At first, he hugged her between his palms, but when noon rolled around, he limped out of the classroom as quickly as care and his misshapen body would allow. He needed to make more permanent arrangements.
During recess, some of the other boys put the light bulb babies in their back pockets. But when Rusty Gillette sat down to play Duck Duck Goose, he had to go to the nurse’s office to get the glass and tungsten removed. After that, the boys rolled their babies into the short sleeves of their T-shirts like packs of cigarettes. The girls were only a little more nurturing with their glow worms. They dug a playpen in the sandbox and left their babies snug in the yellow grit, with only their metal hats showing.
“Planting bulbs.” Mrs. Welninski snorted. “That’s one way to make ’em grow.”
Webern glared as the girls dangled from the monkey bars, socializing, resembling nothing so much as a tribe of hooting baboons. His light bulb baby was swaddled in toilet paper, snug in the tin lunch box he’d strapped to his chest with his belt. He wanted to run over and pull the girls’ hair, but then his pants would fall down.
“Shouldn’t you be eating?” Mrs. Welninski asked, looking suspiciously at his lunch pail papoose. “I didn’t see you in the cafeteria.”
“I’ll do it later.”
That afternoon, Webern biked home carefully with the lunchbox cradle snug in the basket between his handlebars. He pedaled up the driveway and left his bike in the garage, then hurried back outside. Since the car accident, the garage had gaped open, empty as a dragon mouth, and he didn’t like to spend much time in there. He let himself into the house and found his father in the living room, honk-wheeze snoring on the couch.
Webern ‘s father snorted awake. “Goddarnn, son. You startled me.” He hefted himself to his feet, reaching for his crutches.
Webern’s father had survived the second world war without a scratch, but ever since the Studebaker smashed, he’d walked with crutches. Even after the cast came off, he would need a padded shoe. Sometimes Webern wondered if people would notice them hobbling together and think it was a family resemblance, when in fact it was only bad luck, separate, undeserved, and excruciating. “I’ve got to get to work.”
“No, you took the day off, remember?”
Webern’s father ran a hand across his overgrown crew cut.
“Well. You always did have the memory to beat all. Your mother used to say –” He trailed off, glancing around the living room as though her words might be lying somewhere among the empty teevee dinners and discarded tissues. Webern sucked in his breath. Whenever his mother was mentioned, he had the strange sensation that he was flying very quickly through space, with no possibility of return.
“What did she say?” he asked.
His father half-sighed, half-laughed. “Well, like I said, you’re the one with the memory.”
Webern nodded. “I’m gonna go do my homework.”
“Better lock the door!” his father called after him. “Your sisters’ll be home soon!”
Webern’s bedroom was upstairs, between sharply slanted rafters. Instead of a banister, metal bars like drawer handles stuck out of the walls on either side of the stairs. He often imagined clutching those wall handles as the rocket ships on his wallpaper catapulted him into weightless outer space. But today he had no time for pretending. He was on another mission.
Webern sat down on his bed and placed his lunchbox on his knees. Grin McCase smiled up at him boldly as he flipped open the lid. Webern reached into the wadded toilet paper packing and, gently as he could, removed Sunshine from her cradle. He held her in his hands.
“This is where you’re going to live now,” he whispered. “I’m going to keep you safe.”
She smiled at him with her pink heart-lips. Webern gently nestled her back inside, then shut the lid. He scooted the lunchbox under his bed and stretched out on his mattress. One hand slid beneath his pillow and returned, seemingly of its own accord, with a bent Polaroid photograph. Webern rolled over on his back and looked at the picture. In it, a slender, handsome girl sat on the steps of a flooded basement. A desk floated by her bare, dripping feet, but she didn’t seem to mind: her eyes squeezed shut and smiling as a kitten’s. When the picture was taken, Webern was not born yet, and sometimes he wondered if he could say this mermaid was his mother. She seemed more like the dream image of a face he used to know.
The previous winter, Billow had taken an auto mechanics class at her high school. Inspired by the complex, mimeographed diagrams in her textbook and the glinting, sharp edged tools in her school bag, she’d come home in the afternoons to perform cruel surgeries on the Studebaker’s mysterious intestines. At dinnertimes, when she’d folded her hands for grace, Webern had watched the dark grease that stained the creases in her palms and knuckles, the undersides of her fingernails. He also watched the secret smiles she shared with Willow. He suspected that something was not right, and as he ate his meatloaf, his stomach felt like a roly poly curling in.
The night of the accident, Webern stayed home with the twins while his parents went out to play bridge. As soon as the car backed out of the garage, he padded dutifully toward the linen closet, where the girls usually made him sit for at least an hour while they made spooky noises and smashed his toys. But on this particular evening, the girls stopped him before he could go into that starchy darkness. They directed him instead to the sofa in front of the black-‘n-white teevee, where they brought him hot chocolate and cookies while he watched cartoons. As he slurped cocoa through a peppermint straw, he felt uncomfortably like Hansel, trapped in the witch’s house. The twins stood behind the couch, holding hands, breathing down his neck. They wore black aprons, and their thick black outlines left smudges on everything they touched.
“Eat it all- all that you can.” Willow poked him with a candy cane. “Here, have another ginger man.” Billow nudged him with the tray.
“Thanks,” mumbled Webern, wondering why they were acting so nice. On the teevee, a cat in a convertible crashed into a bam, leaving a car-shaped hole.
After an hour or two, Webern, sticky and swollen with sugar, dozed off with his cheek pressed to a couch cushion. He dimly heard the storm door slam when the girls slipped out for their usual late-night walk. But he jumped up, wide awake, when he heard the collision outside.
He ran to the window and threw back the curtain, and, for a minute, he thought everything was all right. The Studebaker’s hood was crumpled against a telephone pole across the road, but his father still sat in the driver’s seat, struggling with the car door, and Webern could see his mother outside, lying facedown on the concrete with her purse beside her. She looked like she might just get up, dust herself off , and walk up to the front door. She wore her green silk dress, and the full sldrt lay on the asphalt like a fancy Japanese fan up for display on someone’s wall, with all the little pleats spread out smooth. There was no blood, only yards and yards of grass-green silk.
Then Webern had seen the broken glass, sparkling like diamonds in the road, and his knees had started to shake.
By Friday, Webern was the only one in class whose light bulb baby hadn’t shattered. To celebrate, he built a mobile out of a wire coat hanger and some ping pong balls. He stuck it to the side of his white wicker bike basket and, on Sunday afternoon, rode slowly around the neighborhood with Sunshine snug in her new pram. The white spheres swung and spun like planets.
“That’s a house. That’s a tree. That’s a cloud,” Webern said, pointing. Sunshine’s upturned face mutely reflected the cotton candy sky.
That night, sitting on the kitchen floor, he sponge-bathed Sunshine with some glass cleaner he found under the sink. His father snorted and drooled, facedown on the dinette set table. Webern dried Sunshine with an oven mitt and exchanged the wadded toilet paper in her lunchbox for some green plastic Easter grass he’d saved since last spring. His sisters had been gone for days now. He wondered where they were, and when they’d come back. Before he tucked himself in that night, he locked his door.
Early Monday morning, about a half hour before school, he hurried into the classroom. With much ceremony, he opened the lunch box and presented his newly polished babe to Mrs. Welninski , who sat at her desk, grading papers. She lowered her librarian’s half glasses and peered first at the bulb, then at the boy who stood there, hands behind his back, grinning and waiting for her approval.
“Well, Webern,” she replied, kindly if ambiguously, “that’s really something.”
Webern nodded eagerly. “I was thinking about making her a dress out of a lampshade, but then she might not fit in the box. When it’s winter, though, I’m definitely gonna make her a sweater out of one of my mittens. I just need some yam. And needles.”
“Webern, I – I think it’s wonderful you’re still so enthused about this project.” Webern nodded. He waited for her to say something else, but she just looked at him, her potato nose tilted earnestly. Webern felt a little disappointed, though he didn’t know exactly what more he’d expected. Mrs. Welninski watched as he shut the lunchbox and, pressing it to his chest with one hand, pulled the belt into place with the other. He struggled for a moment, grimacing, then looked back at her.
“Can you buckle me up?” he asked. She did.
With the capsule snug against his chest, Webern walked over to his desk, sat down, and rested his head on folded arms. He gazed up at the alphabet cards above the chalkboard. A was for Angel; she hovered in the pinkish mists of a heavenly sky, strumming a harp. Webern let his eyes half-shut. Mrs. Welninski went back to grading papers. When the school day started, she congratulated him in front of the class.
“You’ve been an outstanding caregiver,” she told him, raising her voice above his classmates’ giggles. “We’ve all got a lot to learn from you.” She unpeeled a sticky gold star from a sheet of wax paper and, holding it by one pointed ray, handed it to him.
As his classmates tittered and threw spitballs, Webern stared at the sticker on his finger. Was this really what she thought he wanted? What did a light bulb baby have to do with stars or grades or good examples? He loved Sunshine. He stuck the star onto his lunch box, and it became a supernova in the sky behind McCase.
“Thanks,” he said. Across the room, Rusty Gillette blew a raspberry, and, as more giggles erupted, Mrs. Welninski whirled around.
“This behavior is unacceptable,” she snapped. “You kids need to leam the value of responsibility. Every light bulb baby deserves a father like Webern.”
The rest of the class hardly reacted to her words, but Webern sat bolt upright, as though he’d just been struck by lightning. For the rest of the day, he could hardly stay in his chair. Of course he’d been a heartless fool to think only of Sunshine when so many others needed his help – if only that square-jawed ace of hearts had spoken sooner! But maybe he could redeem himself; but maybe it was too late. On the clock face, Wags, weak and weary, hefted the minute hand on stooped shoulders.
When the bell finally rang at three o’clock, Webern sprung from his seat with the sudden energy of a jack-in-the-box. He elbowed and shouldered and kneed his way through the halls, but he was elbowed and shouldered and kneed back. And when he finally got outside, puffing and bruised, his bike had disappeared from the rack.
Webern stared in disbelief at the empty slots between the metal bars; he touched the air where his bike should be. He thought of the time McCase’s cargo rocket had vanished into a black hole. Then he looked slowly around the playground. The jungle gym, monkey bars, and swing sets stood naked and innocent. But, at the far end of the school yard, high in the branches of the playground ‘s one tree, something glinted. Webern limped toward the imposing trunk and squinted up into the leaves. There it was: the streamers dangled down between forked branches. Vultures perched all around.
Webern abandoned the bike and hobbled home as fast as he could. For short bursts, he sprinted with a kind of asymmetrical grace, but most of the time, he lurched and panted. When he finally opened the door, he allowed himself a sigh of relief – his sisters still weren’t home – but he didn’t bother to wake his dad, sprawled on the living room rug. Webern had business to attend to. He creaked straight upstairs to his rocket ship room.
His mother never would have tolerated it: the bed sheets were tangled ropes, and discarded ditty clothes covered half his toys like scattered shrouds. Webern picked through the mess to one forgotten comer. Much to his relief, the basket he’d slept in as a newborn was still there, half-hidden under a Bugs Bunny sleeping bag. He dragged it into the middle of the room and lined it with a fuzzy blanket from his bed.
When he was younger, Webern had begged his mother to wrap him in a towel and tuck him in the wicker bassinet “like a tiny baby.” Now, he suddenly wondered if there had ever been a time before he’d started longing for the past. Again, he remembered the snow globe he’d broken so long ago, and the soothing way his mother had taken the shards from his bleeding hands. How could something so beautiful turn to knives? But he pushed the thought out of his head. He couldn’t let himself get sad. He had too much to do.
Webern carefully unbuckled the belt that held the lunchbox to his chest. He unlatched the top and gently placed Sunshine in the baby basket. She leaned against one wicker wall, smiling up at him.
“Be right back,” he whispered, kissing her metal hat.
Webern went downstairs and through the door into the garage. He pulled the old wooden ladder out from under his father’s tool bench and grabbed a screwdriver from a peg on the wall. Then he let himself back in the house, dragging the ladder behind him.
The first light bulb babies he rescued hung from the chandelier in the dining room. Webern didn’t even need the ladder to reach these; he just stood on the table. Once he’d unscrewed all eight of the little orphans, he went upstairs and tucked them in the basket with Sunshine. Next, Webern leaned the ladder against the wall of the living room. He had to be particularly quiet in there, since his father was still asleep on the floor. Holding his breath, Webern leaned backwards off the ladder, reaching up into the ceiling’s crater where a solitary light bulb slept, brave and lonely as a spaceman.
To reach the light bulb babies on the kitchen ceiling, Webern had to stack dinette chairs on top of each other, since there was no wall near enough to lean the ladder against. Then he had to use the screwdriver to remove a frosted plastic dome that came loose all at once, almost making him lose his balance. After all that, the refrigerator proved something of a relief; he just reached inside and plucked the little Eskimo out. Lamps were easy too; under the tent-like shades, light bulb babies camped unhappily, waiting for a search party to come their way.
When Webern finished with the main rooms of the house, he tiptoed into his parents’ bedroom, as if afraid of waking something that slept there. A dozen light bulb babies napped in a half-circle around his mother’s vanity mirror, their plump little butts high in the air. These babies looked different than the ones in the rest of the house; they were rounder, chubbier, with shorter necks. Maybe they were newborns. Webern handled them with particular care; he only brought two up the stairs at a time, and he bundled them up in sock sleeping bags before snuggling them into the basket bed with their brothers.
Altogether, Webern rescued forty-three light bulb babies. Gathered together, they filled his bassinet quite snugly, and he was so relieved to have saved them all that tears came to his eyes, and kept coming with surprising force. Sniffling, Webern went downstairs to the bathroom. He returned with a box of tissues. But, instead of blowing his nose, he stuffed the narrow gaps remaining between the glassy bodies with wadded-up Kleenex.
When he was finally satisfied with his handiwork, he wiped his eyes on his sleeve and brushed his hands together. Then he slid the basket beneath his bed and crawled under after it. Dust bunnies clung to his arms. He sneezed, then poked his head back out under the dangling bedspread. Now he lay eye level with his scattered and forgotten playthings: matchbox cars, animals, blocks, robots, jigsaw puzzles. He rested his cheek against the carpet. Webern felt like a wound-down wind-up toy. On the floor across the room, Wags stuck his head out of the pouch of a dusty stuffed kangaroo.
“Nice work, captain,” Wags said. He saluted. “You’ve got moxie.”
“A spaceman never panics on a mission,” Webern told him bravely. “I knew they were counting on me.”
“Well, keep up the good work. I better be hoppin’ along.” Wags snapped the straps of his lederhosen and ducked back down into the kangaroo pouch.
As the sun went down, the house turned brilliant colors: first pink, then orange, and then a rich bloody red. Webern sat for awhile with his glass nursery, keeping company, but as the darkness deepened, the cold pale bodies, motionless in the basket, began to remind him of some unpleasant, half-remembered dream. He crawled back out into the room before the memory could fully hit him.
He went to his window and opened it wide. In the moonlight stretched his dark and empty street. But in the distance, he could just see Willow and Billow coming up the sidewalk. Tonight, the girls were dressed as bed sheet ghosts, sheathed from head to toe; only their crude black outlines gave the disguise away. Webern stared as they drifted toward the house. His hands squeezed the windowsill. Thank God he’d saved the babies while he still could. His sisters would hoot and screech through all the rooms; their sheets would flap and snap like gunshots. They would knock over lamps. Webern knew he would stiffen with fear; he would be helpless and trembling, especially in the darkness. But at least the light bulb babies would be safe: there would never be another accident.
Webern looked away from his sisters and up into the sky. He perched on the windowsill. Tonight was so starry that, staring straight up, he almost felt like he could fly. Webern held tight to the window frame, then, for one precarious instant, released it. He felt himself teeter, flapped his arms, then grabbed hold again. Just kidding. No cause for alarm; no need for panic.
Webern thought again about that test for spacemen-in-training, the test to see if they could bear floating in outer space. He thought of his snow globe’s splattering, glittery crash, of his own plummet from the tree house, of the roa1ing sirens and falling bombs, of his mother’s outline in chalk on the hard and bloody street. He imagined his light bulb babies spilling to the ground and shattering. Maybe the trick to passing the spaceman test was just remembering that falling wasn’t so bad; it was coming back down to earth that hurt.