Thursday

Anatomy of a short story

Devoted reader(s?) will remember a not-so-long-ago short story I posted entitled "Lightning Rod." A lot of the things that I post on here are just outlets for small creative bursts, or stories that I don't intend to follow up on. Some things, though, are more important than that. I have been working diligently on this story since that first post and have had several people read, reread, correct, and criticize it. There is now a much newer, more polished version! There will be one more version, which will be the final version, so bear in mind that this middle draft is in a transitional space. However, I wanted to share with you the process of creating, evolving, and completing the first short story for which I intend to seek legitimate publishing.

As always, I would like to strongly encourage you to post your thoughts about my writing, be they small corrections or larger thematic concerns, or anything in between or outside of that field. Most importantly of all, enjoy!



Lightning Rod

When I look back on my late teens, sometimes I have to laugh. It’s amazing the way you can feel on top of the world, like you know everything, at that age, and yet looking back on it you can see you were still a baby. I love this particular story because I am reminded of my youthfulness, and of the love that my father and I had shared, that we shared until the day he died. It warms my heart with such a fondness, and I can’t hold myself back from laughing at my own immaturity at certain parts. Above all, it is my favorite story because it was the time in my life when I felt most alive. And in my solitude, now, I need these kinds of comforts.
It hadn’t been all that long since everything went dark. A decade, maybe less. Already we were long forgetting, though, what life had been like. Everyone had moved on emotionally, and day-to-day structure was based around a new way of life: new chores to be done, new social structures. And for the most part it was easier.
It’s surprising, really, how little time it had taken for people to adjust. Maybe as a culture, as a species, we’d been hearing about the apocalypse, global warming, and international catastrophe for so long that when something finally did happen, a little sputter of a cataclysm, it wasn’t nearly as bad as we’d expected. We all breathed a sort of collective sigh of relief, cut our losses, and got used to it. Personally, I found that I was a lot happier without “modern” convenience. I’d begun phasing them out in my personal life anyway. It was probably just the beginnings of teenage rebellion. But one thing I did miss, which I missed desperately, was the internet. God I missed the internet.
At first, for those who’d been old enough before the Blackout, night-time was the hardest. After the sun went down, and light switches didn’t work, they’d become very introverted. During the day it was easy to distract oneself from the lack of electricity. People seemed to treated it like a blown fuse or faulty wiring, something for which they simply awaited a handyman’s touch. But at night, it was undeniable. We lived in suburban Pennsylvania. Route I-80 ran right alongside it. The lights wouldn’t turn on. Stereos wouldn’t play. Electric stoves wouldn’t boil water. The city was far enough away from the city that the inky black of night was total. Eventually, everyone was used to it.
My mother was loving, but quiet. I loved her tenderly as she did me, but I found I didn’t identify much with her. Growing up it hadn’t been a big deal, but after the Blackout the rift between us widened. It was not because we didn’t love each other, because we did. We simply handled the whole thing differently and we understood that we didn’t really have much to give one another. My older sister, Nancy, was stoic like mother, and they kept each other company. The only difference was that Nancy and I had always been close, and became giggly girls late at night or under the warm eye of our father.
The relationship Nancy and my mother shared was mirrored by mine with my father. My father had been an electrician, and I his little girl. I adored him, and we did everything possible together. We were the same person, just with different gender and an age divide. For a while after the “wave,” as people called the pulse that wiped everything out, he was fervent about keeping the family together, providing, and making sure we would be fine. And we were. He took care of us, and although I was old enough to be living on my own by society’s previous standards, the new way of life kept me home, kept me under his roof. I was in my early twenties, but being safe under his wing made me feel and act like a little girl sometimes. And he followed suit, calling me “Bug,” a nickname he hadn’t used with me since I reached double-digits.
After a while, though, Dad became depressed. There was no work for him to do, in the sense of his trained craft. The thing he’d loved and had dedicated himself to, electricity, had, in a single moment, simply ceased to exist. It was a tough blow for him. While my mother’s quiet had made me grow distant from her, my father’s silence pulled me in.
I tried everything to cheer him up. I would convince Nancy to help me stage little plays for him in the living room. I’d go a town over to Nuys to get him the jerky he loved. While things like this put a smile on his face, he would wait until he thought I was satisfied and wasn’t looking and go right back to sulking.

---

One day in March I was digging through the attic when I stumbled upon an old cardboard box. It was labeled “Ithaca – 2007.” I opened it up to find a photo album. I pulled it out and flipped it open hesitantly, not out of fear, but rather in anticipation, a last breath of air before this future would pass behind me. And then the book was open.
On the first page was a man with a beard. He wore big, gaudy black sunglasses indoors. He was making an absurd face and picking his nose. I caught myself off-guard when I let out a laugh, a big burst of one gone as quickly as it had come. I turned through page after page of people in their early twenties, with rooms lit up at night, computers ablaze with information streaming at them in high-definition at high-speed. These were people only a bit younger than I, enjoying every luxury I didn’t have. The one thing in the photos that burned brighter than the electric bulbs were the eyes of the people they illuminated.
I was so enraptured by the photos that it hadn’t occurred to me to ask myself of whom they were photos. About twenty pages in, I skipped the question and jumped right to the answer. The photos were of the same bearded man and a lady. They were kissing, they were hiking, they were drunk at parties with friends. They were Mom and Dad.
I glided down the stairs at full speed, as though I were afraid that if I didn’t show the album to someone else in time, it would disappear as thought it were a dream. I couldn’t have that. This was too precious! I couldn’t afford not to share this with someone.
I flew into the kitchen so quickly that I nearly vaulted over a countertop.
“Is this you and Mom?!” I asked, practically accusingly. But my Dad was not for a moment shocked or startled. He took a fraction of a glance at the photo I was opened to, and suddenly his eyes glowed like LEDs with a new battery. He didn’t respond. He took the book from me, his eyes trembling, and stared for a good long while at the photos, occasionally turning a page. I stared at him, rather than at the new photos he was overturning. I could read the content of every photograph in his face. I was struck by my own awe.
We spent all night up in the attic, digging through boxes of things I’d never known were within a few yards of my sleeping head. There were plenty of photos, but also posters, CDs, notes from friends, videotapes, and an entire box of Christmas lights. I had lived through the Blackout, could remember even before it, but the stories my father told me were so much more real and alive; they transcended the Blackout. That night unified past, present, and future for me in a way just out of my cognitive grasp.

---

The next day, he got to work. He had had his own shed, my Dad, a workspace with a toolbench and every supply he could need. At the time of his last customer, he’d had enough tools and supplies to last him another month of house calls, and he hadn’t touched it since either.
That day and every night that followed, when the town got dark, my father set to work on the wiring in and around our house.
“What are you doing, Dad?” I would ask him. Somehow I thought he’d gotten confused, or feared he was going senile. I considered it my duty to ground him in the reality of the situation.
“Don’t worry, Bug,” he would tell me, “you’ll see.”

You’ll see.

After a week or two, our house had lights everywhere. All of the old fixtures remained, and new ones had been added. There were big lights in the living room and lights pointed off the roof at the backyard. There were little baby lights lining stairs, lining the pathways around our home. They stared down every dark corner of every dark room. He worked all March. Each morning I awoke as though it were Christmas, in the still of early-morning, to watch him work. It made me feel like a kid again.
On April first, he stopped working. I woke up a little later than usual. When I walked downstairs, the house was quiet. I was frustrated with myself, thinking he’d already gone out to the shed and I’d missed wishing him a good morning. Stepping outside onto the back porch and into the chilly air, I looked out at the shed. The door was shut, and the lock was still on it.
By the time I got back upstairs, I was no longer scolding myself for waking up late, I was instead angry with him. I was angry that he’d stopped working on a project I knew nothing about, angry at his laziness, angry that I felt I had nothing to look forward to. But the anger was just a ruse for the fear I felt. I was scared that maybe he’d given up on his goal, whatever it was.
I burst into his bedroom, where he was still sleeping.
“Daddy!” I yelled. “What are you doing?! You’re supposed to be working!” My petulance overpowered my reason.
He opened is eyes, and with the same calm and certainty I had come to expect, he smirked and said, “What, a man’s not allowed a day off?”
“Well, yeah, but…” I searched for a reason why today couldn’t be his day off. “You can’t yet!”
“Why not?”
“Because.” Looking at him, I was soon charmed. My face loosened and I smiled.
He smiled right back. “I promise you that I’m not done working, and that very soon I’ll have a surprise for you.”
When he finally did wake up late that morning, he left the house with a backpack full of water and a lunch that my mother made for him. He told Nancy and me to make dinner and do some handywork around the house, fixing loose screws and the like. Ever the egalitarian. He told us to eat without him, but to save some food. He’d be back a little bit late. Begrudgingly we assented, and he walked out the door with a fresh kiss on either cheek.
When he got back, I was already in bed, my worry keeping me awake. I could hear him whistling as he came up the path. I didn’t go to meet him because I knew he wouldn’t want questions, so I left him be. I was simply glad he was safe. Out the window, I saw him walking with a long stick of metal, as well as a big box. It didn’t seem exorbitantly heavy, but it also didn’t seem like it was easy or light enough to carry over long distances. He made a trip out to the shed, and one to the basement, heated up his dinner, and went to bed.
We had an old elliptical exercise machine in the basement, as well as a stationary bike. They hadn’t been touched in years, dormant even before the Blackout. In the morning after his trip, at breakfast, Dad asked me if I wanted to exercise with him in the basement some time that day.
”Why?” I asked him. It seemed like a ludicrous idea.
“I wanna get rid of this gut!” He shook what little of his stomach would jiggle.
I laughed.
“How am I going to maintain my girlish figure when you beautiful ladies won’t stop feeding me?!” I giggled again and gave him a loving hit on the shoulder.
“Ok, dad. Let’s digest and then I’ll come exercise with you.”
And I kept my word. The machines didn’t turn on, but that wasn’t the point. I was just glad to see his good humor and sentiment hadn’t subsided back into depression, and now that it seemed he was not going to work anymore, it would keep him active and feeling good. We didn’t need to log our heart-rates or distances traveled.
We did it every day as the April rains rolled in. We would go down to the basement and get on the machines and ride at leisurely paces, sometimes stopping but remaining downstairs, and sometimes the conversations that started those mornings persisted through dinner.
The thing we loved talking about most was electricity. I had no significant interest or knowledge in the topic, but he had no shortage of things to say, and I never wanted him to stop. When he did stop talking, I asked more questions.
“Dad, why is it that bulbs always used to blow out right when you switched them on?”
“Well, the filament inside the bulb is pretty delicate. As the bulb ages, certain parts of it can no longer sustain the rapid changes in temperature from the sudden influx of electricity, and those parts shatter under the strain. That disconnects the two ends and disrupts the circuit, halting electricity from flowing through.”

---

It was getting late and the rain was coming down hard. It was the first thunderstorm. The moment the thunder clapped, he went out to the shed. My mother yelled at him to come back inside, but he wouldn’t be deterred. He came back to the house with the metal rod, went down to the basement, and when he came back upstairs twenty minutes later, he was sweating. By then, the thunder was practically on top of us, loud as all hell, and the lightning could be seen in sharp bolts within a mile of the house.
He climbed up to the roof carrying the rod. I knew what he was doing. The box in the basement, the exercise, the rod, the sweat on his brow. I knew exactly what he was doing. What WE were doing.
I steadied the ladder as he climbed. He secured the pole in a slot he’d made, and hooked up a hidden wire at either end of it.
I was watching from the lawn.
“Come down, Dad!” I wanted to yelled to him from below. But I was simultaneously petrified and excited beyond belief, so I didn’t say anything.
“I got it, Bug! I’m comin’ down now! Hold the ladder.”
But before he could even get a foot to the first rung, the lightning struck the rod only a few feet away from him, and he missed his footing and slid right down the roof. There was no big dramatic scene, no hanging from the gutter, no screaming for help. In a matter of just a second or two, he’d gone from the roof to the lawn. I just stood where I was for a moment.
“Dad?”
I shook the cobwebs out and took a step forward, but was halted by another bolt of lighting. It was right ahead and above me, hitting the bar square. I was blinded for a split second, and then stood there. Nothing.
Lightning has a higher probability of striking in a particular place once it has already. People think the opposite. By the time I got to my Dad, it hit again. A third time. Just as bright, just as startling, right over our heads.
But this time, the brightness stayed. I was confused, despite the clarity. The bolt had come and gone, the clap loud alongside it, but the light had stayed, I knew, because my irises were straining closed. Kneeling over my father, I’d been so preoccupied with concern for his condition that it took me a moment to realize what was happening.
The lights in and around the house were all on. Our entire property was lit up, light pouring out of the windows, down the hill. I was dumbstruck by the sight of it. The generator battery we’d been training this whole time was actually maintaining. I completely forgot about Dad, who could very well have been dead beneath me for all I knew.
We lived up on the hill by St. Simon’s, and most people could see our house from theirs. They were all coming up Marison St. I looked down to see my father was grinning at me, despite the bone coming through his old Levis. The milky light falling on his injuries seemed to nullify them, to assuage the throbbing pain he undoubtedly felt. As the neighbors arrived at our property, they all stood in awe, holding one another. One woman gasped, purely accidentally. It was, undoubtedly, a knee-jerk reaction. She covered her mouth sheepishly and looked around, embarrassed.
When her hand came away, a grin was there to fill the space. Mrs. Jenkins looked at her and laughed, and started dancing around like a lunatic. A jubilant, fire-eyed lunatic. The children followed. Some danced around my father, who was sitting up, like he was a campfire. The youngest children lay on their bellies just under the small lights of our path, admiring the tiny fairies that dangled motionlessly above them. They danced as brilliantly as if they were the first on Earth to see this. One couldn’t see anything but our house and yard; everything else was swallowed up by the night, as though all of the darkness of our property had been displaced and made the rest of the dark night more concentrated. The rain didn’t bother a soul.
The lights illuminated the lawn, my face, and my eyes, but then they shed light on smaller things. Stolen kisses in an elevator in Manhattan and making love at the beach in Florida. Small samples of perfume from magazines that I would smell while wearing my mother’s clothing. A broken pact with a best friend. The deep recesses of my memory braced like fugitives under flashlights. Things I’d stashed away with the appliances, somehow. It was a reunion party, and I was there wearing my best dress. I cried, and the tears mixed with the rain in salty-sweet drops that watered the earth below my feet.
But then another bolt struck and the lights flickered and blew out. Sparks danced down to the lawn. The darkness closed back in and got more watered-down, more permeable, as before, but it somehow seemed more complete. The filaments had borne too much heat, and our fields of vision succumbed to momentary blindness.
The storm subsided and the stars reappeared. It took time before the parents reluctantly carried children down the slope back to houses, and my father, weakened perhaps more by the spectacle than by his injuries, stood on his good leg and leaned against me.
I walked him into the house and sat him down. I got him a glass of Scotch to manage the pain, and readied him for the trip to the hospital, like dressing a child for a romp in its first snowstorm. I looked at him, and he looked back. The lights in his eyes, untouched by that final bolt, were still on.