Gail Louise Siegel
The Lighter Collection

Jack hadn't planned on collecting cigarette lighters. True, he did love wicked dancing flames, the swell of yellow-blue fire licking skyward. It was his favorite part of smoking, lighting up. Long after the kids nagged him into quitting, years after he stopped picking up souvenir matchbooks to prove to himself where he'd been, he still kept a lighter in his pocket. Like a switchblade, he never knew when he'd need it.

Then, one day, at a bar and out of neglect a woman left him a lighter as a keepsake. They'd talked long into the night. She was lonely, tired, too tired to leave, or too tired to leave with him. But she liked him. She liked the cracked brown leather of his flight jacket, a conceit for a one-time anti-war flower child, and his ash colored hair -- too long to be fashionable. It struck her as the right balance between fantasy and lack of pretension. She thought Jack had a comfortable smile -- not too eager to please, but willing.

While she talked she weighed the odds of sexual pleasure with him. They were slim. She hadn't showered since 5 a.m.. She hadn't shaved her legs since Dallas. Her Marlboros were a bad habit; they made her tongue filmy and dense. She didn't want impulsive intimacy to descend into self-consciousness. She suspected this fastidiousness worked against her. But there it was.

After Jack peeled the label off his sweaty Goose Island bottle, he toyed with her lighter, unaware that his sexual prospects had been dismissed due to persistent hygienic worries. The lighter was blue cloisonne, and shaped like a marlin. He'd never seen anything like it, being partial to Bic disposables until that particular night. He snapped it on and off, watching the flame rise, her eyes hovering behind. They were tired brown eyes, but mirthful, sincere. Shadows flitted across her small, manicured hands as she smoothed out his beer label, shook her head and tip-toed into a story.

It was getting too late for even Jack to cross the line from good listener to winning charmer. She had a flight out of Portland in the morning. He had a meeting. They were too old for this, maybe. So instead of letting his gaze linger on the fine bones of her face or studying the way her slightly overlapping left front tooth made her smile seem like a joke on itself, he watched the butane flicker and listened intently to her tale of unforeseen heartache.

He could picture the rowdy Lake Superior wind tangling her hair as she wailed from the stormy shore of Big Duck Island twenty-odd years before, stranded by her enraged new husband. Marooned without a canoe or even a flashlight in the barrens of that moonless wedding night.

They'd had a fast-forward courtship. Met, romanced and married in just weeks. In the confines of their nuptial tent, he was more old-fashioned than she'd imagined. He had wrongly, incredibly, expected a virgin bride. When he asked, she botched her future in a instant of rash honesty. He banged her anyway, called her a slut, slugged her and sped off in their rented boat.

She'd never considered the lunar phases until the gloomy honeymoon sky mocked her, flaunting its worthless, new moon. She huddled alone in the sleeping bag, shivering more from fear than cold, feeling abandoned by the very planets and constellations, not just her furious groom. Now she'd become mathematical, she told Jack. She always knew the cost of any given truth, the moon's geometry on any given night. Outside the bar, the moon was gibbous, and waxing.

Jack looked up when she paused and without meaning to, he sighed. He was moved and sorry. Sorry for her busted marriage, sorry it was too late to listen more, to wander through another room in her past. Just then it was easier to grasp than his own. His marriage to Hannah seemed foggy and indistinct, like a blurry snapshot. It had starved to death ten years back. Money'd been scarce and they were short on patience and forgiveness. That was before his photographs began to sell, the torrent of success that swept him along like a twig in a flooded gully.

When the silence grew too heavy for another story to rise, Jack longed to steer her out of the bar and draw her close in the dark corner of a small space -- a car, a closet, an empty hall, and to run his tongue over her mistiled teeth. To force out her pain with a flood of slippery pleasure. It seemed urgent somehow. But she was smiling and brushed a strand of black hair away from the corner of her mouth, saying, "It was a very very long time ago. He's dead and I have to say I'm sorry. I have no regrets. And I'm all better now."

Better and warmer, she thought, compared to that tooth-chilling night and the humiliating dawn. A pair of Eagle scouts from Ludington paddled her over the white caps to the ranger station. A handyman crammed her into his pickup, beside a rusty toolkit and a dented can of green paint. She let his radio soundtrack of crop reports and cattle futures presage a new life as they lurched to town. She caught the evening Amtrak west, nodded at indifferent Chicago, and rode on to North Dakota.

Jack agreed, she did look all better now -- smiling at him with those winking teeth, slipping a ten dollar bill out of her purse and across the small damp ebony table for her tab. When, all at once, she slung her coat over her shoulder, leaned forward to give his cheek a peony-perfumed kiss and said, "Thanks for listening," it seemed a wild rush for such a sleepy hour. Jack was too stunned to return the lighter. She was gone in a flash, before he thought to get her number or address or even the spelling of her name. It was Eastern European and complicated by consonants. She vanished.

He kept the lighter. As a kind of possibility or wish that she might orbit back to it. But she didn't. Instead, other lighters seemed to gravitate toward the marlin. Little silver ones from pawn shops, embossed ones from souvenir shops, leather ones from antique shops and gifts from knowing friends. Everything from Bics, Colibris and Dunhills to Zippos. They accumulated on his mantle, where the marlin sat with now 15, now 40, and decades later, more than 200 lighters, many with their own story, long over by the time they reached Jack.

The marlin would always remain his favorite. Some nights, as he passed the hearth on his route from the dishes drip-drying in their white rubber drainer to his bed's worn flannel spread, he'd pick it up. Once again he'd run his finger across the weathered inscription (For Amos, Forever Yours) and try to remember her name. It wasn't Amos. And neither was it the name of her hasty, infuriated groom. Amos could have been anyone B someone she'd met in another bar, someone she'd never seen, someone who left behind a lighter.