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Yet here I was, at long last. And what had brought me here? The stupid lampshade.

A few weeks before I got on the plane to Berlin, I heard from Skip Henderson, who called me in his own special kind of panic to tell about a dream he had. It was the lampshade, hovering, against a black background. That was it, his entire dream. The shade never moved, just stayed there, blocking his view of anything else in life. This was when he realized something about tassels, the little Hershey’s Kiss bobs everyone I’d talked to was certain had been added years, perhaps decades, after the construction of the shade itself. The guy from Sotheby’s told me: “Beaux Arts, central European, mid-century, fringe added later.” Hugo Ramirez, who owns a classy antique-lighting shop on 59th Street in Manhattan, agreed: “Definitely central European, maybe thirties or forties; someone put those tassels on later.”

“Take the thing out of the box,” Skip demanded when he called. “Look at the tassels.”

“What about them?”

“They’re Mardi Gras colors, aren’t they?”

Strange what you don’t notice. The tassels were faded, not garish and plastic bright like the beads the masked men throw at you from passing floats. But they were definitely green, gold, and purple. Green, gold, and purple, in that order, all the way around. Mardi Gras colors. So what did that mean? That the unknown individual, the one who put the tassels on, had a really sick sense of humor? You could even call it a Nazi sense of humor. Who knew?

Who knew anything? All the lab report said was that the lampshade was “human.” There wasn’t enough genetic material to pinpoint ethnic traits to pinpoint what kind of human. So maybe it wasn’t from Buchenwald at all, maybe it wasn’t even a Jew. It could have been some poor unfortunate hitchhiker in Mississippi for all I knew. One thing did seem certain, however: that Dave Dominici was right when he said the lampshade came “from Katrina,” that without the storm, the shade would have never surfaced. It took the awful swirl of Katrina’s double, double, toil and trouble to whelp the lampshade up from the underground.

The fog on the Buchenwald Appellplatz was so thick I couldn’t make out the chimney of the crematorium. I could barely see my feet. Still, as I stared off into the murk, I felt a connection between this place of terror, where the lampshade, at least the idea of it, first came to light, and where this particular object had ended up, in the New Orleans flood. The lampshade had its secrets, things I needed to know. Perhaps Goethe, poet of the Ettersberg, would have had an answer. But even that was far from clear, as I knew from my copy of Faust, inside my shoulder bag even as I stood amid the enveloping gloom. In the dedication, the poet writes of “a shudder” that “shakes my frame” so “the firm heart feels weakened and remote. What I possess, mine, seems so far away from me, and what is gone becomes reality.”

Mark Jacobson’s The Lampshade will be published on September 28 by Simon & Schuster.


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