The Broken Headlamp

At First Sight

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 Bonaventure? 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 golden brown.

“No way,” he heard Devin contend.

A huddle of boys shifted foot to foot in the far corner of the room and 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 to have done that. I don’t believe it.” Devin said.

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

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

“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. “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 and Mitch scowled. Over their heads, Devin winked at him.

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

“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 police stable on Mulberry Street, under the old station not under the headqua–

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 WaldoRhinelander motorized the–”

“Think about it, Dev.” Mitch cut him off, his eyes wide. “If there’s even one ... one! A 1912Indian, 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 ditching 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 old stationhouse was here. It’s been torn down for an apartment building but the stables are still underneath, bricked up. They were a level down – down a ramp with big double doors to the outside at both ends. There’s a trap door from below into one of the stalls, Avi said. And the bikes are in the tack room. ”

“Or they were, forty 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 its 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 ... A ha! A broken headlamp, the lens missing, the bowl of it chipped 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?” Vincent passed over the shard and Devin shook his head. “You’re keeping this?” he asked, handing it back. "Why?"

“It’s neat.” He opened his knapsack and shoved in the shreds of an old blanket 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 got a dollar. We can get some ice cream on the way home.”

***

He was first to their chamber, Devin having detoured 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 nicked 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 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 stopped him and he stared into the concavity. A fog swirled there ... and he saw the wide green eye – not his – the jagged smudge on a smooth, rose cheek ... not his. He held his breath, blinked ... and laughed away his fancy. With his shirtsleeve, he wiped away a murk of condensation and grime.

“There’s a party,” Devin announced. “Sebastian’s here. And Noah’s grandpa too. 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. Not junkImportant things. Things worth keeping. 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. He gazed into the bowl again, saw only his own blue eye, a flash of pearled tooth. He wedged the headlamp in beneath an alabaster bust.

Toss it? He ... couldn’t.

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