Like a Thief in the Night, by Sheila Heti

Sign in to access Harper’s Magazine

Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?

  1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
  2. Select Email/Password Information.
  3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.

Locked out of your account? Get help here.

Subscribers can find additional help here.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!

Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
[Readings]

Like a Thief in the Night

Adjust

From Pure Colour, a novel, which will be published next month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Mira left home. Then she got a job at a lamp store. The lamp store sold Tiffany lamps and other lamps made of coloured glass. Each lamp was extremely expensive. The least expensive one cost four hundred dollars. This was a month’s salary for her. Every day, before they closed up for the night, Mira had to turn off every single lamp. This took about eleven minutes. Mostly she turned off lamps by pulling on little beaded cords. She had to be careful not to let the cords snap back and hit the bulb or the lamps. She had to pull the cords with a gentle sort of care. It was tedious work. Mira didn’t have the morning shift. That person had to turn on the lamps. Their job was no better than hers.

Across the street was another lighting store. Where Mira worked, it was just a lamp store, but the other store sold all sorts of fixtures, and also ceiling lights with fans attached—very modern lighting in contrast to their old-fashioned wares. People preferred the store across the street. The owner of Mira’s store had just enough customers to stay in business, since most couples went across the street and spent their money on modernistic white lamps and off-white lamps made of industrial plastic. Mira’s co-workers felt sorry for themselves, and said those people had no taste. When it was time to close up shop, Mira would see the thin man who worked across the street turning off every single light, one by one. They both had the same nightly task. Mira felt that no one in the world understood her, but she wondered if he did. Yet, embarrassed by their similarity, she avoided eye contact with him.

She felt so alone in those days. Not that she minded. It is only when you get older that everyone makes you feel bad about being alone, or implies that spending time with other people is somehow better, because it proves you are likable.

But being unlikable wasn’t the reason she was alone. She was alone so she could hear herself thinking. She was alone so she could hear herself living.

How did Mira find her job at the lamp store? She must have walked past it and seen a little sign. How did people find jobs back then, back before everyone knew what everyone else wanted? Little paper signs.

How did she find the room she lived in? There was probably a scrap of paper taped up somewhere, or tacked to a corkboard at a local café. The house had two bedrooms on the second floor, and a bathroom that was shared. There was a large apartment on the main floor, which was occupied by a blond-haired gay man, who came home one night all bloodied and beaten. They met by accident on the stairs, and he turned away from her, angry and shaken.

On her floor lived a lonely man about ten years older than she was, who Mira only saw twice. He was silent and shy. In their bathroom was a dirty tub, so she never took a bath, and she rarely showered. Because the man prepared dinner in the kitchen, she bought a hot plate for her room.

Attached to her bedroom was a drafty porch with wood-slat walls and subtly distorted windows, set into all three sides. It would have been a pretty room to sit in, if the weather had been nice. But it was fall when Mira moved in, and she was gone by early spring. She kept all the books she owned on a shelf in that freezing little room. When it was time to move out, she opened the door to collect her books and found they had all molted and their pages had gone wavy with the damp, deep cold of the winter.

Mira would sit in the lamp store and gaze at one lamp in particular. It had green blobs and red blobs; little polished stones of coloured glass that were held together by a network of iron. The shade was a half-oval, with a beautiful iron stand. It was the most wonderful thing Mira had ever seen. She would sit and wait for the day to turn dark, when she would turn off every other lamp, and stare at her favorite, with its translucent stones illuminated from within. She would spin the shade so gently and its coloured light would fall on the walls and her.

Since the lamp she liked best was the least expensive one, it was possible that one day she might own it, if no one bought it first. Perhaps the fact that it was the least expensive one was the reason she had made it her favorite. There is no point in loving something that is not a bit within reach.

It was the essential humility of the lamp that drew her to it. It had not been made by someone with any sort of insight into how a person might want to appear to others, or who believed that people acquired things to show them off to their friends. It had not been made by someone who imagined that an object fit into a greater system of values, or could place its owner among others with similar taste. It had been made by a humble person who simply thought, Now I will make my next lamp.

Whenever Mira came in for her shift, the first thing she did was look to see if the lamp was still there. It always was. She guessed that her boss must know how much she liked it, although she
never asked. Probably every employee had their favorite lamp.

One day, while at work, Mira’s boss pulled on his coat, saying he needed to run a bit of an errand, and that he would be back in twenty minutes. As soon as he left, Mira took her favorite lamp and hurried with it to the back of the shop and hid it near the fire door, out in the alley, among the folded cardboard boxes and sagging bags of trash.

Hours later, after closing, Mira went out the front door and around to the back, where she found the lamp and carried it carefully down many streets, concealed beneath her coat. She carried the lamp like it was the fattest cat, clasped to her chest and held tightly. She took it to her room and put it on her desk. She leaned down to plug it in, then sat up again and looked at it. There it was: her lamp.

Mira didn’t think that having the lamp would make her more valuable, or turn her into an impressive sort of person. She didn’t think anyone would admire her for having the lamp. She didn’t think it would give her magical powers. It was just the desire to have something so special, so glowing, and entirely her own. It had been a simple and pure thing, her wanting it. Later, acquiring things would become more complicated, and would leave her dissatisfied, confused, and wanting even more. But having the lamp didn’t lead her to wanting more lamps. It led only to the pleasure of having this lamp.

She got up and turned off the overhead light, then returned to sit before it. The red and green stones shed its light upon her dark face and the white walls. And she loved her meager little existence, which was entirely her own.


More from