Tuesday morning, before the steam settled on Olivia Baker’s coffee, she went to retrieve the daily paper from the front stoop. To her surprise, the door opened only a third of the way, colliding with something on the other side. She craned her head through, blowing the flyaway strands of her bedraggled morning hair out of her eyes, to find that somebody had left a lighthouse on her doorstep. “Huh,” she said, taking a sip from her mug.
It was a peach-colored pillar, a tower stretching high above Seventh Street and overshadowing the Davises’ freshly bloomed petunias. Olivia took another sip and closed the door. Her husband Anthony was hunched over a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios, half-asleep. Olivia said to him, “There’s a lighthouse on the doorstep.”
“Someone left a lighthouse on the doorstep.”
“Well, that’s probably not good, is it?”
“Do you know why it’s there in the first place?”
“I don’t know; I’m not a lighthouse architect.” Anthony got up and his spoon sank into the milk. Olivia heard the front door hit something. And when Anthony returned, he said, “There’s a lighthouse on the doorstep.”
“What are we going to do with it?” Olivia asked, handing Anthony a towel to wipe off the spoon he fished from his breakfast.
“Send it back?”
“Where’d it come from?”
“Dunno. Suppose it’s got something to do with Laura?”
“Why would it?”
“Well, she’s been eating bubblegum.”
“Bubblegum, yeah. She’s been saving up the wrappers. She likes the little comics on them.”
“What, like Bazooka Joe?”
“Yeah, but the corner store stocks some other kind, could be that.”
“I broke a tooth on a Bazooka Joe once.”
“I remember that. College?”
“Senior year, high school. You had a tire blowout a week later.”
Anthony dropped two slices of wheat bread into the toaster and turned down the dial. He pulled out that new strawberry jelly Olivia wanted to try and spread it over her slice. She pulled up the seat beside him and bit in. Through bites, she asked, “What’s the gum have to do with Laura?”
“Well, she said there was a prize. I wasn’t listening all that much, but she said if she ate enough gum that she could send the wrappers in for a prize.”
“Why would the gum people want the wrappers back? You think they reuse them?”
“They probably clean them first.”
Olivia sucked down the last drops of brown. She collected the dirty dishes and left them to soak in the sink. Now that her morning personhood had kicked in, she needed to take this to Laura. Olivia cleared her throat at Anthony. He fastened the belt around his bathrobe and they headed down the hall.
Laura was buried beneath an army of plush seagulls, all arranged at attention in case of intruders. Olivia found Laura’s obsession with the birds unsettling, but the toys were cheap and buying them took less time than birdwatching, something Anthony had taken on her once last year and Laura hadn’t forgotten like Olivia hoped. Anthony tapped lightly on the door frame while Olivia pushed through, batting away a couple attentive stuffed birds so she could make space to sit. A feather on a rock, Olivia nudged her daughter awake.
“Laura?” Olivia spoke. She saw a glimmer of deep chestnut as Laura’s eyes flickered into the world. “Have you been eating bubblegum?”
Laura stretched and said, “I ate 500 pieces of bubblegum.”
The mother scowled at Anthony as his eyes fell on a table lamp and his hands hid in his bathrobe pockets. Olivia pinched the bridge of her nose. She said to the whole room, “I thought we were going to cut back on the sugar. How did you get 500 pieces of bubblegum?”
“You bought 500 pieces of bubblegum off of a dollar a week?”
Olivia turned to her husband. “You let her do this?”
“We were giving her the money for her to do with as she pleased,” he shrugged. “If we told her what to buy with it then we might as well have got it for her ourselves.”
Laura rested against the headboard; her stuffed animals grimaced under her weight. “Am I in trouble?” She slunk slowly beneath the covers, getting lost from her mother.
“Why did you eat 500 pieces of bubblegum?”
“To win the contest.”
“If I send in the 500 wrappers from the 500 pieces of bubblegum, then I have a chance to win a lighthouse.”
“Well,” Anthony said, adjusting a hairbrush on the dresser, “we have news for you, Laur.”
The Bakers left through the backdoor. Anthony thought it could be a bit of a surprise if they walked around, but there was no hiding a first-prize, full-size lighthouse in front of their single-story ranch. There was no use hiding at all. Every house up and down the street had been identical, until today. Laura jumped around the front yard in unrestrained glee, ending with the arms imperfectly hugging the outer wall of the lighthouse. Her mother noticed that there was no door—just a plain tower reaching into the baby blue morning. Laura tried climbing it, sliding down like a squirrel on a greased bird feeder. Olivia couldn’t imagine why her daughter would want it in the first place. It had to go.
A car pulled up. Georgia Davis poked her head out the window, the hook of her nose scratching against the dewy air. Through a scowl, Georgia said, “You Bakers best be moving that. Did you wait until my flowers blossomed to add an extension? My poor garden will wither under this monolith’s shade. You take care of this or I will be in touch with the homeowner’s association.”
Olivia winced. Anthony said, “Come on, Georgia, it’s our kid’s.”
“Get her a ball instead.”
She drove off, leaving the Bakers to watch their six-year-old prance around her monument. Olivia crossed her arms and kicked water from her slippers. She said to Anthony, “We have to get rid of it.”
“I didn’t know you cared so much for the neighbor’s flowers.”
“We have no front door, Ant.”
“So, we have to nix the whole thing? How do you throw away a lighthouse?”
“There’s got a be a way. How’d they get it here?”
“Express mail and some determination?”
“Laur?” Olivia called. Laura froze in the middle of a dance. She approached her parents, her face painted with happiness. Olivia knelt down. “Laura, I’m afraid we can’t keep the lighthouse.”
“But—but I won it. It’s mine, isn’t it?”
Anthony knelt next. He grimaced, the family pushover limping towards a united front, “Yes, it is, Laur. But look at it. It’s too big for our house. It’s bothering the neighbors. What happens when we need to replace the bulb? Can you send away 100 pieces of bubblegum for a replacement?”
Olivia put her hand on Laura’s shoulder, “You can play with it for ten more minutes, then it’s time to get ready for school.”
“And then I can play with it after school?”
Olivia sighed. “It won’t be here after school.”
Laura pushed her mother away, screaming, “I never get anything!” She ran to the front door, snaking through the crack because she knew she was the only one who could fit. Olivia thought, she’ll get over it. Olivia needed to get ready for the day herself.
She said to Anthony, “You’ll take care of this?”
“I’ll call Joe and we’ll move it.”
The Bakers broke for now.
Olivia showered, got dressed, and gazed at the lighthouse on the doorstep as she lingered at the stop sign. She was astounded by how far she got from home and with the rotating glimmer over their home keeping in view. The image embedded itself in Olivia’s memory so even when she got into the city and the buildings there blocked out the rest of the world, she still felt the persistent eye of the lighthouse upon her.
When she got home that day, Olivia stood in the front garden with her arms crossed and a pointer and a thumb again clasped against the kink of her nose. Anthony held his hands behind his back. He waited for Olivia to say something about the lighthouse that was supposed to be taken care of while she was away at work. His mouth opened a crack. Only wide enough for the possibility of words to escape, but not the words themselves. A blackfly went in, but he didn’t notice.
In the clouds, seagulls sang. They circled the lighthouse’s peak. Olivia sidestepped some bird crap. If Laura saw it then it’d only be harder to get rid of. She said to her husband, “I thought you said you’d take care of this? Wasn’t Joe coming over to help?”
“That’s the thing, Liv,” Anthony said. He turned a rock over with his foot. “I called Joe and told him, ‘Joe, I need help moving a lighthouse,’ and he said to me, ‘A lighthouse?’ and I said to him, ‘Yeah, a lighthouse. Can you bring your truck?’ So, Joe says sure and comes on over. Well, he pulls up, he scrapes his hubcaps against the curb because ever since his lost that eye his depth perception’s not the same, but still he climbs out and he said, ‘That the lighthouse?’ and I said, no, that’s the Davises’ place and suggested he turn around. He goes, ‘Oh, okay.’ Joe turns around and the guy nearly falls on his backside looking up at the thing, ‘cause you know Joe: he’s not the tallest guy.
“So, he lined himself up beside the doorstep, plants his feet, and gave a bear hug to the lighthouse. He yipped and grunted and the darn thing wouldn’t budge. He came back over and said to me, ‘I give up,’ which caught me be surprise because he only just got here. So, I said as much, ‘You only just got here.’ And old Joe looked at me through his one good eye, really glowering through that thing, and he said, ‘You told me it was a light house, when, in fact, it was actually quite heavy.’ Then, Joe hopped in his truck and drove away, his hubcaps, all the while, screeching against the curbside.”
“One of the caps actually cracked and landed in the Hadids’ yard ‘cross the way.”
“There is still a lighthouse on the doorstep. What are we going to do about it?”
“We could go in through the garage.”
Olivia ran her hand over the bumps in the paint. The lighthouse was beautiful, she admitted: the warm peach color with deep chocolate trim. It matched the shirt Laura wore to school that day. On top of the plinth, under a matte nickel roof, sat the kaleidoscopic bulb, immobile until dark.
When Olivia was young, she lived in a white colonial with her six siblings, her parents, and one set of grandparents. She used to walk home from school to see her boxy home jut out of the hillside like a snapped femur. The problem with it was, their neighborhood was all boxy white colonials. Her parents, joking loudly through the walls when it had been bedtime for her and her sisters, claimed that the city developers had purchased neighborhoods wholesale. On a darker day, Olivia’s key hadn’t worked because she had accidentally walked up to someone else’s house. An old woman yelled at her to get gone. To her embarrassment, Olivia was not only at the wrong house, but the wrong street, and the hills she thought that she knew had actually belonged to strangers. It was easy to get lost when she was young and she hadn’t had a lot of help with her family to find her way home.
Five years ago, her childhood home had been demolished because, when her family moved out, and when all the neighbors moved out, nobody new wanted to live in houses with thin and flaking walls, roofs that leaked, and basements that doubled as periodic swimming pools. She once took Anthony to visit the lot where the house once stood, but he pointed out that not only were they at the wrong address, they were also on the wrong street.
“It is kind of beautiful,” Anthony said, looking up at the lighthouse. He put his arm around Olivia. She nestled in.
Softly, Olivia said, “We shouldn’t keep it, Ant. I need my front door. What happens when the bulb breaks? There’s no door here. We get a ladder? Do we have to pay to replace the light? How much is this costing us in electricity? What if a storm comes by and knocks it over? It could crush us.”
“Or, at the very least, crush the Davises’ petunias.”
“But, well, I think we should talk to Laura. It is hers, after all.”
They listened in on the distant song of the seagulls. A line of birds perched on the Bakers’ rain gutters and eyed the parents with cocked heads and calculating glances. They looked almost cute. It fascinated Olivia how the birds were attracted to it. Laura loves birds, Olivia realized.
“There it is!” Georgia Davis called from the street. She tramped up the lawn with Sharon Freedlander, president of the Homeowner’s Association. Sharon Freedlander was the daughter of Franklin Freedlander, the man who founded the neighborhood’s Homeowner’s Association back when Gorman Brady tried flying a Canadian flag on the fourth of July back in 1956. A Brady hadn’t lived in town for forty years, but his legend lived on. Sharon Freedlander herself did not like confrontation as much as she enjoyed being heiress to local-based dynastic politics.
“Jeez,” Anthony whispered to Olivia. Olivia stepped in front of him to deal with the fuzz.
“Sharon,” Olivia greeted. “What brings you out today?”
“Georgia here had some complaints, you know,” Sharon laughed. “Have you seen her flowerbed?”
“Divine, isn’t it?”
“Simply wonderful. Now,” Sharon clapped her hands together. “What’s the hubbub about?”
“That!” Georgia Davis pointed at the lighthouse. A seagull landed on her finger.
“My, my,” Sharon said, removing her glasses and cleaning them with her shirt. “That is a beautiful piece, Bakers. When did you buy a lighthouse?”
“Oh, don’t be silly,” Anthony said. “We didn’t buy a lighthouse. Our daughter won it in a contest. It arrived this morning.”
“A contest? What contest gives children lighthouses?”
“She had to mail in the wrappers of 500 pieces of bubblegum.”
“500 pieces of bubblegum?”
Georgia Davis sneered, “You let your daughter eat 500 pieces of bubblegum?”
“What she does with her money is her business.”
“Yeah? Well, now it’s our business.”
Olivia snapped, “What’s our daughter’s lighthouse have to do with you? What’s Sharon doing here that we couldn’t settle ourselves?”
“That thing is a violation of the Homeowner’s codes. A lighthouse is a disallowed ornament for a front lawn.”
“It can’t possibly be that specific,” Anthony said. He turned to Sharon, “Does it actually say that?”
“My, my,” Sharon said, avoiding eyes, “someone call a sandwich because we have got ourselves a pickle. I hate to butt in on your decorative practices, Bakers, but, yes. We can’t have lighthouses in our neighborhood since Carmen Ellis-Olson in ’77. Her lighthouse made an evergreen in the next yard dry up and fall over, landing on my father’s foot. But, she had bought hers, which is why I was surprised that you won yours in a contest.”
“Was your dad okay?”
“Oh, yes. It was his fake foot anyway. The only thing bruised was his pride,” again, she clapped her hands together. “So, here’s the deal. You have twenty-four hours to get rid of the lighthouse.”
Olivia’s nose twitched. She spat, “Or else?”
“Or else you get fined for each day you fail to remove it from your yard.”
The women left the Bakers alone to consider their options. Anthony got dinner started and the school carpool dropped Laura off from the after-school program. Neither parent could remember what she was doing after school, but she always arrived placid, if not drained, so Olivia and Anthony were satisfied. Laura squeezed through the front door, needing to slip her arms out of her backpack to fit. She came running into the kitchen shrieking, “Thank you, thank you, thank you! I thought you were going to get rid of my lighthouse!”
Her parents tensed. Olivia didn’t want to drag this out for more than a day.
“Laura,” the mother said, “the Homeowner’s Association says we need to move the lighthouse or else we’ll be charged.”
“What? Move it where?”
“Away. Apparently, a tree died and a man lost a fake foot in 1977 so we can’t have lighthouses on our doorsteps.”
“That makes sense.” Laura’s head drooped. “Can we change the rule?”
Anthony placed a lid on his boiling rotini and lifted Laura’s chin. He smiled without happiness. “Laur, it’s a little more complicated than just changing a rule. We live here, we have to share the street with others who don’t like the lighthouse as much as you do.” A bead of water formed in the corner of Laura’s eye. Out of curiosity, Anthony asked, “How long were you collecting the bubblegum wrappers anyway?”
His daughter sniffled. “What day is it today?”
Olivia got out of her seat, “Laura, how could you be collecting wrappers for two years and not tell us? That takes dedication.”
“I have been telling you, though? Every time I got a new wrapper. Dad helped me mail them.”
“Oh—” Olivia cut herself off. She had no memories of Laura talking about collecting bubblegum wrappers and endured a wash of guilt overcome her. She and Anthony looked to each other through confusion and clenched teeth. Olivia felt a pinprick in her chest as she recognized the subtle cruelty of ignoring her daughter’s hobby for two years and then tossing away the prize. Olivia had lost her daughter somewhere along the way.
The Bakers ate dinner and put Laura to bed.
The blue light of the laptop screen sizzled against Olivia’s eyes. She heard the rustle of the bedsheets and Anthony’s lazy feet shuffle across the carpet to her desk. Olivia felt his hands on her shoulders shake her. “It’s late o’clock,” he urged. “Bedtime o’clock was hours ago.”
Olivia ignored him. She rubbed her eyes enough for the sunspots to speckle the inside of her eyelids. The shape of her laptop screen had engraved itself on her vision. “What are you doing?” Anthony asked. She pointed to the screen.
“Tell Joe to bring the bigger truck. I found it.”
Anthony squinted as he read, “In 1977, the Homeowner’s Association moved to forbid all lighthouses from the list of acceptable front lawn decorations following physical injury to another human and the detrimental effects it posed on local flora.” He looked at Olivia, “What am I not seeing?”
“Front, Ant,” Olivia shambled to bed. “It’s so dumb I couldn’t process it, but they don’t care about backyards. Let’s get rid of that walkway that we were never going finish and drop the lighthouse there.”
“You mean we’re gonna keep it?”
“For now, sure. First, call Joe and move the thing.”
After work the next day, Olivia, exhausted from the night’s insufficient sleep, raced home. She saw, from blocks away, the titanic peach-colored beacon offsetting the suburban skyline. Olivia got closer and saw Georgia Davis’s petunias, growing as strongly as ever, almost as though a couple days of shadow hadn’t hurt them much. Georgia stood in her doorway and Olivia laughed at the fact that the Davis house looked exactly like their own, only reflected across the blacktop. Georgia called, “This doesn’t make it okay!” And, coy, Olivia saw her front door freed. Anthony had come through. He had managed to the lighthouse into the piddly garden they called a backyard.
Anthony met Olivia outside.
Olivia smiled at her husband and beamed, “You got Joe to bring the bigger truck!”
“I did! Do you want to know how we moved it? It was easier than you’d think.”
“Save it for later when Laura gets home. You can tell us together.”
And finally, when the carpool dropped Laura off, she ran into the back yard. She danced, frenzied, until latching herself onto the lighthouse wall. She scattered the seagulls and watched as the recollected. Olivia ruffled her daughter’s hair. It was Laura’s lighthouse after all, would’ve been a shame to see her lose it. All it took was 500 pieces of bubblegum to lead her to her daughter. Olivia wrapped an arm around Anthony’s waist. She took in the building and the way the seagulls sang as they circled. She wouldn’t get lost finding her way home.
From the street, it did look pretty nice.
Jack Croughwell is an adjunct professor of English with a Master’s in English & Feminist Studies. He has won Honorable Mentions in Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. Jack also has a modest collection of hedgehog knickknacks.