Patti Writes: A Circle of Light

“Is it time yet?” I whisper loudly. ‘In a stage whisper,’ Nanna would say.

I am poised with the red table lamp, its cord dangling from the outlet between the two kitchen windows, in one hand, and my library book under my arm. In the small bedroom off the kitchen, Ma is crooning gently to Denise, the baby. Ronnie’s silence means he is staring intently at Ma’s lips. Denise babbles. Then a sigh, like at the end of a long hard day at the factory. And Ronnie whispers ‘good night, Mum.’

Soon after, Ma slowly backs out of the ‘kids’ room, silently closing the door to within the width of her hand.

I know not to breathe or the spell will be broken.

Then, I scramble through the open window onto the screened-in back porch, while Ma pours two juice-sized glasses of milk, then assembles our butter and saltine cracker sandwiches. I set the lamp on the box between two low-slung beach chairs. The cord is just long enough, actually, taut, and I switch on the light. My job done, I lie back, book on my lap, and watch the outlines of the houses on Marion Street melt away, and dots of lights appear in their windows. As darkness claims day, the lamp’s bulb creates a bright circle of light, an oasis, big enough to include us, our snacks, and books. I love this.

Balancing our goodies on Nanna’s old wooden tray, Ma enters the porch through the doorways—kitchen door to back-hall to porch door to porch. She transfers plates and glasses to the box and returns to the kitchen. In my mind, I see her stack the tray beside the toaster and begin the search for her book.  

I wait.

She returns.

We establish ourselves in our chairs—scootching around for comfort. It is hot summer in East Boston and sticky humid. “Not a breath of air,” Nanna’s voice says in my head. City sounds are lazy—a dog bark, a car horn, a kid’s laugh, the brief smack-thud of a moth trying to get through the screens.

My mother always claimed she was tricked into agreeing to move to this flat on the top floor of my grandfather’s three-story apartment building on busy Meridian Street. As she told and retold it, she and Daddy stood in the empty kitchen with its brass fittings and grey, double soapstone sinks, and Dad said, “Look Reta, a big back yard for the kids.”

“It was dusk,” she’d say to me. “No screens. Who could tell that our so- called big back yard was actually the neighbor’s?” Our flat had only this back porch, screening added later against the moths, overlooking the back yards of other houses.

 Our building had no back, side, or front yard. But we had this circle of light and reading, reading in the night on the back porch together.

This memory sustained me through entrance exams, essay tests, comprehensive exams, dissertation defense, and even conference papers as I adjusted the microphone and the reader’s circle of light on the podium.


Read here to learn more about Las Vegas Literary Salon’s Elmer Schooley Short Story Prize writing contest. Cash prizes of $300 each to the top three submissions and an opportunity to be included in the contest’s short story anthology of qualifying entries. Download Submission Guidelines here. Short Story Contest submission deadline changed to July 1.

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