03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Accident

What follows is the second installment of my short story, "The Lightning Bug". Catch up with the first installment here.


It was not quite the exact gloomy middle of another pay period for Gerald; a time of restless days that dragged on like evening church services, and somber, early nights. Nights that would creep up with needless, sardonic caution, as if stars relished the agony emerging darkness caused in the hearts of the lonely.

Gerald kept track of time by etching large black X's on a wall calendar magnetized to his refrigerator at home, sent to all loyal customers of a local repair shop as a Christmas gift. Each month had photographs of a tanned bikini- clad girl lying prostrate over the hood of a shiny hot rod wearing a wry, suggestive smirk, occasionally grasping a wrench or pouring what looked like motor oil over surgically perfected breasts.

Lost in a labyrinth of libidinous thoughts he'd never admit to having while sitting at the kitchen table, Gerald's work pager began vibrating. He knew the call would be urgent; it always was whenever the company contacted him after 5 pm. Outside, the sky rumbled in a deep, reverberating chant. While he was listening to the radio on his way home from work earlier that day, he'd heard that there was a storm headed in his direction.

Damn tornado season hitting us early this year, he thought to himself. So far there had been no rain.

Gerald promptly called back the recognizable number listed on his pager. On the other end was his supervisor, Abe, who knew he could count on Gerald for the work that now needed to be done.

According to the raspy, somewhat jocular voice at the other end, the storm that was now tossing gray moonlit tree limbs to and fro outside his window had come from the North-- Montgomery County way. And already there had been some carnage left in the storm's wake. It had apparently knocked something over, likely a tree, flush into a row of lines. There had been some red flags raised at the central station downtown and it was feared there was danger of a total county outage.

Gerald didn't need to hear anymore; his movements were mechanical, routine. He first walked into the bedroom's exquisitely neat closet and grabbed his heavy armor suit draped over a sexless mannequin purchased from a local store along with his hot stick, which he kept on a shelf -- or more accurately -- a makeshift shrine, constructed out of plywood and placed over a broken fireplace in the shag carpeted living room. With the suit draped over his shoulder and the hot stick firmly grasped, Gerald took one last look around the place.

Though modest, it suited him fine. Various knickknacks and knock off antiques decorated the open spaces, which gave his home an air of urbanity that he was confident set it apart from other apartments in the neighborhood. Many of his nocturnal visitors commented on his unusual taste in furniture and more than once Gerald succumbed to sleep on his couch as they carefully inspected the exotic, baroque pieces strategically placed throughout. In such instances he'd awake in the early morning light, still very much alone, clothed, and far removed from his waterbed, in shame and embarrassment. Sometimes there'd be a note left scribbled on his kitchen table, but he'd never called back.

He turned and walked out, careful not to slam the door but still descended his stairs quickly, with the brisk attitude of a proud emergency worker on the way to the scene of an accident.

The outage was about an hour away as the crow flies but it took almost double that behind the wheel of his beat up pickup truck because of the inefficient network of narrow, pocked roads that wound through the surrounding countryside. The few radio stations whose signals he could pick up were playing songs he was sick of hearing, so Gerald clicked off the AM/FM dial. Soon the tapping rhythm of rain on his roof intensified to chaotic hail-like banging. His faulty windshield wipers were quickly overwhelmed with the onslaught; he had to slow down. Odd, Abe confidently said that the storm would be moving steadily south, towards home.

By the time he got to the dirt road turn-off on the lone highway, Gerald had slowed his truck down to a creep. His lights shone but were truncated by the cascading darkness. Around the car on this bumpy gravel road, trees swayed violently, as if some devilish subterranean hand was gripping their roots to shake the trunks and branches in disapprobation of his reckless intrusion.

Eventually his car reached a clearing at the top of a hill. A canopy bewitched with wind gave way to a black void, still no lighter than the forest he had emerged from. Looming overhead, with the geometrical exactness of steel bridge girders, were gray metallic towers holding aloft the ailing power lines, strung high above but obscured by the rain shooting down. They faded into nothingness to the left and right almost immediately; he could only spot five, spaced about 50 yards apart. But there, practically in front of his car, was the problem. Indeed, a tree had fallen, but it was not resting on the lines themselves. Instead, it lay flat on the far side of the lines; a pine, with bushy needles and a thick trunk, gouged towards the base as if hit by a cannonball. Pale, sappy core splintered and shining in the glare of his headlights.

After quickly assessing the scene, Gerald stopped the car and stepped out into damp knee high grass, leaving his equipment in the trunk. He left the lights on to illuminate his new workspace. Despite the sound of rain hitting the trees, he could make out the unmistakable electric drone emitted by any grouping of lines transporting a significant amount of energy.

Sounds like God humming to Himself, he thought.

But this time, this familiar tune was accompanied with another, more pernicious melody. High-pitched, barely perceptible shrieks, like the desperate fire alarm of a Lilliputian village, echoed through the clearing. Gerald turned on his powerful flashlight and pointed it up, at the tower most likely affected by the tree given where it currently lay in the weeds. On the control box attached to the peak of this tower, which appeared on every fifth structure, a dim red light was blinking.

A loose connection -- the tree must have jarred it out in the fall. Without attention, there was danger of the line being disconnected entirely, which meant he needed to get up there and splice it back to the conductor. Gerald walked back to the cab of his truck, where he kept a short bungee rope and harness not unlike the gear of an avid mountain climber. The rain would make this tricky, but not impossible.

As a trainee, some fifteen years ago, his instructors repeatedly disabused his belief that electrical work in the rain spelt certain disaster. Gerald could just picture one trainer in particular, an indignant pug-nosed Irishman who insisted his students call him "Red," vehemently criticize the overly cautious practice of avoiding work in the rain.

Red loved to call his trainees "ladies," and gave Gerald some special attention due to his less than imposing demeanor. But despite Red's best efforts, Gerald ended up passing the course, near the top of his class. Gerald would never forget the pitiful, grotesque look on Red's face upon graduation. Watery, blood shot eyes after consecutive nights of drinking revealed a sentimentality long repressed and invited a firm handshake that was a half-hearted attempt to introduce an awkward hug that lasted far too long.

Below the injured power lines, Gerald began putting on his mesh suit. He dressed silently, methodically, as a gladiator meticulously arming himself for battle beneath the great shaking stands of the Coliseum. His suit resembled the protective gear worn by shark divers, and getting it on entailed dealing with the same agony and frustration felt by those who donned a form-fitting neoprene SCUBA wetsuit. After zipping himself in, he stepped through his canvass harness, which looped through each leg and had a hook for a karabiner clip in front of his navel. Moving around quickly was arduous in the suit and he swayed over to the base of the tower like a penguin, gripping his hot stick and the rope. The sky above looked like the churning bottom of a powerful, polluted waterfall.

At its base, he threaded the safety line through a karabiner attached to his harness and knotted it in place. The other end he attached to an eyelet sticking out of a metal pole that ran the length of the tower. Every five feet or so were similar eyelets where he could re-attach himself and make sure that if he were to lose his balance and fall he wouldn't drop too far. Now secure, Gerald began slowly climbing the tower's metallic ladder up towards the blinking control box.

His mind was a void; swirling thoughts faded and were replaced with physically engrained movements made almost intrinsic through training and repetition. The rain was coming down in a consistent downpour. Rumbling complaints of thunder echoed overhead, followed with increasing rapidity by hot outbursts of lightning. But Gerald hardly noticed. He was transfixed on the clinking of his boots on each rung and the eerie cartoon ghost shuffling of his suit as he steadily ascended the ladder.

Gerald couldn't look up lest his vision be rendered clouded and stung by the free-falling pellets of rain. Soon he had reached the top, and after clipping his safety line to the box's eyelet, slowly moved his hot stick towards the frayed wire, almost disconnected. In the darkness he could make out arcing sparks amidst wire's guts; multicolored intertwined tubes that he believed might resemble the veined cross-section of a human appendage.

With his hot stick he prodded the wire so that his suit became energized to the line's voltage. Immediately a faint but familiar buzz, akin to a mild case of pins and needles, flowed through his body. He was now connected. Imagining the power in the hundreds of volts sliding over the surface of his metal suit heightened his senses and gave him a high that he was sure was unparalleled in the world of conventional, illicit narcotics.

At once, seeming to encircle him, an explosive roar was unleashed, unlike anything he'd heard or felt before. It passed through his translucent, tissue paper skin with a sonic boom, freezing his body in terror and awe. The earth screamed. "At me?" he thought. Then nothingness.

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