? 1997 by Jerry J. Davis
1. LITTLE RED LIGHTS
HAVE YOU SEEN A
LITTLE RED LIGHT?
If you have, you'll know it,
and if you want to share your
experience with others who
have seen and heard the same
thing then come to 225 W.
Poplar Street, Berkeley, at
8:30 PM on Friday 6/20/84.
The building at 225 W. Poplar Street is an ugly Co-Op meeting
hall with brown-painted stucco walls and a flat roof that's
trimmed in orange. Nervous-looking people stand on the front lawn
smoking cigarettes and talking in low voices; they watch Tom, Pris
and I with haunted expressions as we pull up in Tom's car. Tom
looks back at them and they turn quickly away, staring at their
own feet, a companion's elbow, a tree . . . anything but us. As we
get out of the car and walk up the rough, rock-imbedded concrete
sidewalk toward them, they move away.
Tom nudges me. "If they kick me out, I want you to stay. Say
you don't know me. Okay?"
I nod slightly. We've been over this before --- they'd
already told him they don't want publicity, even though they'd
been putting up those weird signs all over town. A reporter from
the Berkeley Barb would not be welcome.
The inside the building is dim and smells of marijuana. There
are folding metal chairs set up in rows, and at the front of the
room there's a cheap utilitarian table and an obviously hand-built
podium that's wired for sound. All throughout the room people
gather in little groups, whispering, and one mustachioed man
dressed in black is lighting candles and placing them on the cheap
table. Everyone glances at us and at each other but they avoid
direct eye contact.
I lean over and whisper into Pris's ear. "Boy, do these
people know how to party."
Pris grins. This brightens my mood a bit, but only for a
while; the place has a feeling of musty, suppressed dread, and I'm
beginning to wonder if we've stumbled into some sort of satanic
cult. Tom is quiet, taking it all in; his eyes are like camera
lenses, and they affect people the same way a camera does. They've
very blue, and he stares with such an intensity and clarity of
focus that they put people on the defensive. He's also a big guy,
with big square shoulders --- he's not really muscular, and he's
not fat, he's just big. He dwarfs Pris, who stands between us,
touching both of us. She watches him and then watches what he's
watching, as if trying to fathom how he sees things. Occasionally
she glances at me and flashes her brilliant little Pris-smile,
which always sends a little thrill though my nerves. I watch her,
and see she's breathing fast and shaking. It makes me want to hold
her, an urge that never quite leaves me when she's around.
Pris taps on Tom's arm and whispers, "Isn't that the bum that
hangs out on your front steps?"
Tom and I look over; in the back corner of the large, dim
room, in the darkest part, is a thin man standing by himself. He's
facing the front with a mask-like face and piercing, beady eyes.
He's dressed in an old Army jacket and tattered pants, and his
hair hangs in oily strings to one side of his forehead. Yes,
that's our bum. He's acting strangely calm tonight --- it's odd to
see him standing still, not moving a muscle, not even talking to
himself. The only time I've seen our bum motionless is when he's
asleep in the bushes next to the steps of our apartment building
--- other than that he's always moving, always doing something
. . . usually something mindless, like dragging things out of the
public trash cans and playing with used straws and rubber bands.
The mustachioed man in black finishes his candle-lighting and
then takes quick steps to the door. At the door, he glances at his
watch for about twenty seconds then looks up, grunting. "Excuse
me," he says to the people loitering outside. "Meeting's about to
start." Turning from the door, he takes more large, quick steps to
the table, where he takes a seat. The people around us find a seat
and settle down. Tom, Pris and I take seats toward the back.
Someone closes the door to the room and the only thing that breaks
the sudden silence is a few low whispers.
The man in black clears his throat then introduces himself as
Bob Thorn, then he introduces the two dumpy-looking women who have
positioned themselves next to him as Virginia Beach and Lori
Angstrom. Pris and I share a glance and a stifled laugh at
"Virginia Beach." Jokes would come from that later. Virginia
stands up and positions herself behind the podium, clearing her
throat into the microphone. "I assume everyone here has seen the
little red light?"
There is a general nodding of heads, and a few muttered
"I see a member of the press has shown up," Virginia says,
looking straight at Tom. "Is that because you've seen the light,
or are you here to do a story?"
"I'm here to find out what this is about," Tom says. "I'm
just curious. I mean, your signs are all over the place."
"I'll tell you what it's about," Virginia Beach says with
hostility. "For the past five weeks there has been a freak
occurrence in this area where a tiny, bright light appears out of
nowhere in someone's house or office. It lasts anywhere from a
minute to three hours, and is often accompanied by disembodied
voices." She pauses, glaring at him. "This meeting is to give
those of us who have experienced this phenomenon an opportunity to
share our experience with others, and hopefully ease our anxieties
and neutralize our trauma."
"Yes, trauma. For some of us it's been a very intense,
unpleasant experience, a breakdown of reality. But it's hard to
explain this to someone who hasn't experienced it. Your presence
here may intimidate some of us from openly expressing ourselves.
We are not seeking attention. One of your articles in the Barb
would certainly bring about public ridicule, and at this stage
that is something we are not ready to deal with."
"You're speaking for everybody." Tom looks around.
"I'm anticipating their best interests."
"Then you're asking me to leave?"
The woman's expression closes down like a mask. "No. This is
a public meeting. I'm just hoping you'll understand the
Tom stands up and addresses the whole room. "I don't know if
I'll end up writing about this or not, but I promise that if I do
I won't use anyone's name unless I have your permission. If you
feel you have to hide this . . . experience you've had, that
suggests to me you're ashamed of it. If you really did have such
an experience, why be ashamed?"
"You don't understand," Virginia nearly shouts at him. "This
is the first meeting, a big step for everyone here, and you could
ruin it. As a matter of fact, I am going to ask you to leave. You
can come back after we're used to being public about our
Tom nods. He turns to Pris and I and gives me a long,
meaningful look with those camera lens eyes of his. He reaches
down and takes Priscilla's hand; Pris stands up, and Tom keeps
staring at me. I stay where I am and he and Pris head toward the
door. I look wistfully after Pris, and when she and Tom are out of
sight I suppress a sigh and feel lonely. The meeting continues,
and one by one people stand up and nervously tell their stories.
Every one is much the same: He woke up and saw this red light
on the wall; she looked up from the television and saw a red light
on the wall; he and she and another were studying and they heard
voices and looked up to see a red light on the wall . . . it was
hardly a spectacular experience by the way they told it.
Nevertheless they all seem haunted by it, and many of the people
around me, young and old, glance around with wide eyes as if they
expect the little red light to appear at any moment.
When it comes to the bum's turn, he quietly clears his throat
and in a husky voice says, "Yeah, I saw it . . . I saw it on the
surface of a building, and it said, 'Look, there he is,' and I
ran. I saw it again on the same night in a different place, but
didn't hear it speak." I'm impressed. I've never heard him speak
so clearly. I'm sitting there pondering this when Virginia Beach
clears her throat and says, "Excuse me." I turn to look at her and
she nods. I stare blankly, wondering why she nodded at me, then
suddenly realize it's my turn to tell everyone how and where I saw
the Little Red Light. Jesus Christ! I think to myself. What do I
say? Everyone is looking at me expectantly, and Virginia's eyes
are narrowing, suspicious . . . she's probably figured out I'm
with Tom Harrison and that I've stayed behind to spy on the
"I was in my bathtub," I tell them. "The light appeared on
the ceiling and stayed there for three minutes. I didn't hear any
voices, thought." I swallow, wondering if they'll buy it. I can't
tell about the rest of them, but Virginia Beach is glaring at me.
She doesn't say anything, but she continues to stare. I smile,
shrugging, but she doesn't react, doesn't shift her gaze. Finally
she turns and points to the next person and I nearly slide out of
my chair in relief.
The rest of the meeting takes form as a discussion as to what
this mysterious light is, what it means, what it wants . . . et
cetera. Most of them think it's Aliens from Planet 14 trying to
contact them, but there's all sorts of suggestions. Someone says
Russian psychics are causing the phenomenon; another forms a
theory attributing it to an electrical condition caused by the
over-abundance of radio and television signals. I myself suggest
ball lightning, but no one goes for it. The discussion winds down,
and when they adjourn the meeting I am the first person out of the
Tom and Pris are across the street, sitting on a public lawn
under a streetlight. Pris sees me and raises both hands, waving,
her face bursting out in a tremendous smile. I feel my heart-rate
increase, and I smile back --- I have no choice, her smile is one
of those that are so warm and natural and happy that you smile
back out of reflex, whether you feel like it or not. "You made it
out alive!" she exclaims in her throaty voice; it cracks a little
at the peak of her emphasized "alive."
She and Tom get to their feet and we head toward the car,
ignoring the stares of the people drifting out of the building ---
people realizing that I was, indeed, a spy for the Barb's most
notorious reporter. I tell them about what went on in the meeting
as we pile into the car and Tom starts the loud, throbbing engine.
Tom listens to me, but I can tell he's lost interest. There's no
story here for him, unless he wants to write for the National
Inquirer. The car jerks forward, leaping down the road, and in two
minutes we make it to Euclid Street. Tom parks in his rented spot
way up the hill from the building where Tom and I share an
apartment. The building, named "The Euclid," is right across the
street from the Berkeley campus, and there's never any parking
anywhere near the campus. This spot way up the hill is the closest
he could get. For the same reason my vehicle is even farther away
--- I haven't seen it in over a week.
Pris and I help Tom put the rubberized canvas covering over
his car ---it's a gleaming 1967 Camero convertible with a totally
un-stock, high performance engine and transmission, not at all
street legal --- and having secured that, we plod down the hill
toward the Euclid. I'm right in the middle of suggesting we stop
at Rodney Red's Bar, which we're passing, when Tom suddenly
exclaims "Hey!" He stops and points.
"What?" Pris asks.
"The bum. Look." He's pointing at the Euclid building, which
is only a half block away. The steps are clearly visible, and
sitting on them is our bum.
"No, that can't be the same . . ." I start, but trail off. It
is the same bum. I can tell by his jerking, uneven motions, like a
wind-up toy with broken gears. Nobody else moves like that. How in
the hell? I wonder. How in the hell did he get here before us?
"That must have not been our bum at the meeting," Tom says.
"It looked like him to me," I say. Then again, the bum at the
meeting didn't act like our bum. We reach the steps of the Euclid
and he looks up at us, grinning a grotesque, rotten-toothed grin
with gaping holes, and bobs his head up and down like a lizard.
"How did you get back here so fast?" Pris asks him.
The bum stops his bobbing nod, and draws his head back in a
way that makes his neck look like rubber. "Huh?" he says.
"The meeting," Tom says. "How did you get back from the
meeting before us?"
The bum lowers his eyebrows, scrunching up his face.
"You weren't at the meeting?" Tom says. "You know, about the
little red lights?"
The bum's face jumps forward on his rubber neck. He moves his
arm up in an awkward way to rub his creased forehead; he looks as
though he's dislodged it. "I wasn't at any meeting," he says.
Tom looks at me with his camera lens eyes. "That wasn't him."
"I guess not," I say.
Pris looks back and forth between us, puzzled, her lips
forming a little pout. Her hair has fallen over her left eye, and
she pushes it back. "Oh well," she says, then smiles.
Tom unlocks the Euclid's front door and we enter the
building, plodding up the dusty steps and making a left, walking
all the way down the dingy hall to the last door on the right. Tom
unlocks that door and we enter behind him, passing the bathroom
and the kitchen and head straight into the living room. Tom plops
down on our ratty couch and Pris gingerly steps over and sets
herself down on his lap. He grins, putting his arms around her,
and she leans against him intimately and sticks her tongue into
his mouth. I sit across from them in a reclining chair and watch.
This hurts. Why am I punishing myself? I have a hollow
feeling in my chest, as if all the organs had been relocated, and
there's a unpleasant tingling in my arms. Suppressed emotions. I
take a breath, stand up, and turn away. They obviously want to be
I walk around the chair and into my room, turning on the
light. My bed has camera equipment strewn all across it, and along
my walls are shelves with terrariums full of specimens, and on my
desk is an old IBM Selectric II typewriter and piles and piles of
notes and dust and clutter . . . and goddamn it, I don't want to
deal with the mess, not right now. I don't even want to be here
--- the room is so small it gives me claustrophobia. Turning
around, I go back into the living room just in time to catch a
glimpse of Tom carrying Pris in his arms, heading toward his
fact, I hate her. I despise her.
She pushes her hair out of her left eye as she walks to the corner
and then crosses the street, walking toward the BART train station that
is about five blocks away. Her hair falls right back over that eye, so
she pushes it again . . . and it falls again. It's the style of her
hair, the way it is cut, that makes it do this. It's impractical, but
it's beautiful. I love it when she pushes it away from her eye, and I
love it when it falls back down. Damn it! I tell myself. You don't love
it, you hate it! But, damn it, I love it! I love her!
This isn't working at all.
She passes out of sight, walking downhill toward the front of the
campus, and I feel sad that she's leaving. But I know why, she works on
Saturdays, and so does Tom. Sunday morning is usually his deadline for
whatever story he's working on, and for some reason he always waits
until Saturday to write it. His stuff is very political so it's rare
that I ever read any of it, but at least I know his writing habits ---
he has the personality of an angry cobra until he finishes whatever he's
working on. If I'm in the apartment on a Saturday morning, he snaps at
me if I make the tiniest noise. This is why I'm not in a hurry to get up
Our bum is already awake and playing with trash on the front steps.
I pause on my way up to the door to look down at what he's doing; he's
making crooked cubes again, using drinking straws for building material
and gum and old bandages to hold it together. The bum pauses to look up
at me, jerks his head up and down in recognition, then goes back to his
work. "Making more four-dimensional cubes, huh?" I ask.
"Yeah," he says with a grunt. His voice is dry, as if he'd been
without water for three months.
"What do you do with them?" I ask.
I stare at his bald head for a few seconds, thinking this over,
then laughter comes bubbling up and I clamp my lips together and slap
hand across my mouth. All that emerges is a little strangled noise, easy
to disguise as a cough.
"I sell 'em, too," he says, his shoulders shifting back and forth
but keeping perfectly level. "You want to buy one?"
"Sure, I've always wanted a four-dimensional cube." I say this amid
more strangled coughs.
"A dollar fifty," he says, not even looking at me.
"A dollar fifty!"
He stops what he's doing, turns to glance up at me with narrowed
eyes. "Dollar fifty."
"How about seventy-five cents and I throw in a roll of cellophane
His face brightens. "Oh. All right."
Christ, I think to myself, what am I doing? But I feel sorry for
the guy, so I cross the street to the bookstore and buy a roll of tape
then head back to the Euclid's steps. I hand the bum the tape and the
spare change in my pocket --- which is at least a dollar --- and tell
him to do an "extra good job." I'll have a story to tell about this
thing, people will see this weird little cube made of drinking straws
and when they ask what it's for I'll tell them where it came from. It's
interesting, and they'll be impressed that I was kind to this
unfortunate travesty of a person, with snot encrusted in his mustache
and holes in his pant legs and four layers of worn and dirty socks in
the place of shoes. Then I think, who's "they" that I want to impress?
Pris is "they." Pris is the only person on the whole planet I care about
impressing. Who else? Tom wouldn't be impressed --- he wouldn't have an
opinion at all.
I watch as the bum constructs the thing, using way too many straws.
There's no way he's going to be able to make a cube with all those . . .
but as I watch, I get a tingle down my back. A cube is taking shape,
though even as I watch him put it together I can't figure out how he's
doing it. I sit down next to him, staring intently as he works. Then a
shadow crosses over me, and I look up to see Tom's ex-fiancee Heather,
the actress, looking down at me. She's blond and green-eyed and wearing
a frilly white dress. She appears puzzled --- she's probably wondering
why I'm sitting out here with a bum.
"Hi," she says. "Can I borrow your key for a second?"
Frowning, I reach into my pocket. What in the hell is she doing
here? I don't feel right about lending her my keys but I do it anyway,
and she opens the Euclid's front doors, then smiles and tosses them back
before disappearing inside. She doesn't even say thanks. I have the
feeling I was of convenient use to her, but that's all.
A few minutes later our bum finishes my cube, which looks just like
a normal cube --- not a hint of the extra dimension --- and he hands it
to me, an uncharacteristic look of anxiousness on his face. "You did a
good job," I tell him. "Thanks." Actually it's a sloppy job, but at
least it's not stuck together with little globs of dirty chewing gum.
"Do you see it, then?" he asks, the anxious look still on his face.
"See it?" I look at the cube, then back at him. "What?"
"The whole thing?"
"What? What do you --- oh." He means the forth physical dimension,
of course. "To tell you the truth, no, I don't see it."
"You have to learn how to see it," he says, the anxious look
replaced by one of disappointment. He thrusts his head forward on his
rubber neck and tilts it to the side. "It's an acquired perception."
I think about this: "Acquired Perception." I like the ring of it. I
would make a catchy title for a scientific paper. I thank our bum, more
for the term he created than for the bogus four-dimensional cube, then
unlock the door to the Euclid and make my way up to the apartment. When
I enter, I find I've stumbled into the middle of a heated argument; Tom
and Heather are shouting at each other, their voices vibrating the walls
and tearing at my ears. I duck into my room before I become involved and
close my door, finding myself faced with the same cluttered mess that
drove me out of the apartment last night. I begin to methodically clean
up, putting everything where I deem it belongs, trying not to listen to
the argument but interested nonetheless in what it's about. I can't
tell, however; all I hear is "Why can't you be more considerate!" and
"You never listen!" and things like that. Tom and Heather have never
gotten along. I can't see how they ever got engaged. Either underneath