I was not always a peddler. I was once, too, a lighter of lamps. Street lamps. In the city of Providence. I was once a seller of lemons in Baltimore. I was a greenhorn seeing from the deck of a ship for the first time the lights of New York. I was a beggar. I was a deserter. Once upon a time I absconded from the Army of the Tsar. Once upon a time I was a soldier. A draftee. I was a Russian, a Jew. A brother. A son. The small sound you cannot hear in the dark on this road beneath the clanking of my pack is my spit landing. The other one you cannot hear is my sigh.
One of the most powerful story openings ever is: “And God said: Let there be light!” We of the Judeo-Christian traditions are fascinated by light. We see the light. We light the way. We look for the light at the end of the tunnel. A lamp unto my feet, a light unto my path. Light is life.
So cross-pollinate a Jewish peddler with an Amish housewife in the late 19th century, just at the time when incandescent light was developing. Add a little strange eroticism. And you end up with a helluva story. This booklet was a little thicker than most One Story’s, so I was dubious, but I ended up mesmerized.
Yankel visits the Hartzler farm about every three months. This provides the structure for the story. With each visit, he becomes a little more involved with Mrs. Hartzler, who is very interested in light bulbs. Then in generators. Yankel, who has his own interesting history as sketched in the early paragraph above, goes from carrying a rucksack to pushing a wheeled pushcart to driving a mule and wagon. Mrs. Hartzler – Esther – goes from an interest in light bulbs to generators to batteries. And their relationship becomes more intimate, albeit in unusual (and usual) ways. Let’s say you’ll never look at a light bulb the same way.
According to the Q&A with the author, the story was edited down by about a quarter to fit the One Story space requirements, though he plans to include it in a collection focusing on humanity’s lust for light. Yankel’s background is based on Weil’s great-grandfather whose life followed a similar path.
The prose is a little unusual (I thought it was charming, appropriate, and totally readable) since the story is set over a hundred years ago and the characters are from cultures that use other languages – Yiddish, German – freely. In fact, language is yet another erotic touchstone for them, and sort of reminds me of, forgive me, Wanda’s obsession with foreign languages in A Fish Called Wanda. It’s not really played for humor, though if you’re familiar with the movie, you may smile, as I did.
It’s well worth a read, as almost all One Story selections are. Oh, and the title? It has to do with Ecclesiastes, which is as much of a hint as I’ll give.