Dear Nancy (wherever you are),
“It was 1967,” I can remember Dad saying, standing on a chair. We were giggling. I always loved this story, because it made me feel close to him, and close to you. Mom was always shaking her head from the side, somewhere, but smiling all the same.
“The race riots in Newark erupted. At nights, they closed the Bridge Street and Jackson Street bridges, and carloads of people would drive around in the darkness, lawlessly looting and destroying property, even killing people. We were advised to sleep on the floor, with the lights out, so that even if they shot through the windows with their machine guns, no one would be injured.” That was the part of the story where I always stopped giggling, and got serious. My mouth would fall agape, and my eyes glistened at attention.
“But my father always stood guard. No one could sleep, because we kept hearing them drive up and down the street, occasionally hearing bullets firing or glass breaking.
“One night, we were all on the floor in the living room, when we heard a car stop outside. I heard a man walking up the drive, then up the steps to our front door. I was petrified, frozen. But my father, who was already standing by the door, flipped on the lights both inside and outside of the house. In the midst of this thick darkness that had engulfed the neighborhood for days, suddenly light flooded everywhere.
“My father threw open the door. The man standing there was stunned by both the light and my father’s presence. My father was unarmed, and the man had a bat.
“’What are you doing on my property?’ My father asked him ‘I’ve done nothing to you, and you’re here threatening the lives of my family members.’
The man stood staring at him, in complete disbelief. My father stood staring back, not moving an inch, nor a single muscle. After a moment that lingered unendingly, the man scoffed, but turned and walked back down the path. My father watched him return to the carload of his friends and drive away. When the car was gone, my father closed the door and stepped back inside. The lights had been his weapon against the man. I will never forget the silent power my father wielded, the battle that electricity had helped him win.”
That was the best story Dad ever told us. Now I have one that’s just as good.
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 am often reminded of my youthfulness, and of the love that Dad and I had shared, that we shared until the day he died, almost twenty years ago today. It warms my heart with such a fondness, and thought sometimes my heart is heavy with your absence, I can’t hold myself back from laughing at my own immaturity at times. One story, in particular, replays itself again and again in my mind. It is my favorite story, because it was the time in my life when I felt most alive. And in my solitude, now, and old age, I need these kinds of comforts. Especially without you.
It hadn’t been long at all since everything went dark. A year, maybe less. At first, there had been an aversion, a hesitation to adjusting our lives. A couple days after the electricity went, the inky black of night was total. It took that time, Dad said, for all of the light pollution to escape the atmosphere. We were sure that someone would figure out a way to bring life back to normal. But after the first week we realized that we didn’t have a choice. Whether they were coming or not, we had to adjust to survive. After a month or two, we seemed to have forgotten, already, what life had been like.
People started to set up new shops to deal out the necessities, whatever they could find and could spare for others, for trade. The biggest problem was food, since so many people had been used to going to the supermarket. Jimmy Herbert (you remember him?) taught himself to hunt. He went out and traded some of his things for a gun, and before long he was selling pelts and meats outside his house every evening around dusk. It reminded me of when we were all kids, and he would fling pebbles at you with his slingshot as you left for dance class. You would dart across the lawn in your pink tutu, and he would pop out from behind a bush, hawking some battle cry, and he’d nail you every time. I was inevitably watching from the window, laughing.
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. Maybe we all breathed a sort of collective sigh of relief, cut our losses, and got used to it. In truth, I felt happier without “modern” conveniences. I’d begun phasing them out in my personal life anyway. The one thing I did miss though, which I missed desperately, was the internet. God, how I missed the internet! The feeling of connectedness it had afforded had been as necessary, pervasive, and continuous for me as breathing. It had been the only thing that let me keep up with you, too, which was of tantamount importance.
It was just Dad and I. We did everything possible together. We were the same person, age and gender aside. For a while after the Wave (that’s what people were calling the electropulse, I think it’s called) he was fervent about keeping the two of us together.
“Becky,” he said, “desperate times call for desperate measures. I love you dearly, and I’d like it if you would stay here. I’ll work all day to make sure that we’re warm, and have enough to eat, if you’ll promise to stay here with me.” I’d never seen him so serious, so I chuckled a little bit. But he kept his word for a while, avidly providing and making sure we would be fine.
And we were. He just couldn’t bear to lose me, really. Mom was gone, and you’d left home; I was all he had left, and in truth, I felt the same way about him. He took care of the two of us, and although I was old enough to be living on my own by society’s previous standards, our new way of life kept me home, kept me under his roof. I rather liked it, in fact, and felt no need to leave. I was in my early twenties by that point.
On the one hand, feeling safe under his wing made me feel and act like a little girl sometimes. He even followed suit; he started calling me Bug for the first time since you and I were kids. Yet other times the level of responsibility I had around the house had made me feel like a grown woman. With no ostentatious parties, no art galleries or dance clubs, it was hard to actually feel like a twenty-something. The whole age bracket had become obsolete. For the most part, it felt like being caught in a time warp. I didn’t resent it, though I occasionally was jealous of you, because I know Europe must have been fun beyond your wildest dreams. The points of light dancing across the surface of the Eiffel Tower, in particular, were (and still are) an image I always came back to when I thought of you.
After a while, though, Dad became depressed. There was no work for him to do, in the sense of his trained craft. Since no one had electricity, no one needed him to do any rewiring, or set up outdoor lights, or install appliances. The thing he’d loved and dedicated himself to, electricity, had, in a single moment, simply ceased to exist. It was a tough blow for him. I gradually (and happily) took over the responsibilities, and he grew quieter, turning himself inward. His silence drew me further into him, like a vacuum, made the necessity to love him and be with him even more overpowering.
I tried everything to cheer him up. I’d go to Nuys, about two hours’ walk, to get him that jerky he loved. I’d write poems during the day and read them to him, perform them on an imaginary stage, at night. I wish you’d been there, and we could have performed the plays we used to write as little girls. While I never failed to put a smile on his face, he would wait until he thought I was satisfied and wasn’t looking before going right back to sulking. But I always saw it.
One day in March I was digging through the attic when I stumbled upon an old cardboard box. It was labeled “Ithaca – Senior Year.” 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, despite being 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 only 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 who they were photos of. About twenty pages in, I had the answer anyway. 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. In the opposite photo, Mom was looking at the camera. I hadn’t seen Mom’s face in a decade or so, but I knew it was her with instant familiarity. It was the same familiarity I feel catching a translucent reflection of myself in a storefront window. She had the same curly brunette hair, the same narrow frame, the same green eyes. I was frozen.
But my paralysis gave way to adrenaline, and I glided down the stairs at full speed, as though I were afraid that if I didn’t show the album to someone else fast enough, 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 the countertop island.
“Is this you and Mom?!” I yelled, practically accusingly. But Dad wasn’t startled. He took a fraction of a glance at the photo I was opened to, and suddenly his eyes glowed like the twinkly lights you and I had strung up around the childhood room we shared. 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 every word of his every thought just 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 your things, there were Mom’s things, even my own things from when I was a baby. There were plenty of photos, but also posters, CDs, notes from friends, videotapes. Our twinkly lights were there, too. Dad told me about every single item that I didn’t recognize: where it came from, whose it was. I had lived through the Blackout, could remember even before it, but the stories he told me were so much more real, more vivid, and the past seemed more alive than anything outside of the attic.
The following evening, after the last morsel of meat from Jimmy’s hunt had been eaten and the last plate cleaned and set to dry, Dad went out to the shed in the backyard. He undoubtedly had enough tools and supplies in there to last him another month of house calls; he hadn’t touched them since the Blackout. That night, and every day that followed, he set to work doing maintenance on the wiring in and around the entire house.
“What are you doing, Dad?” I remember asking him, with a sort of timid dumbfoundedness that seems comical to me now. Somehow I thought he’d gotten confused, or worse, I 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.”
After a week or two, the house had lights everywhere. You can’t imagine how many lights. All of the old fixtures remained, and there was at least one new for every old. 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. I can remember wishing you’d walk in the front door, saying “Hey everybody, I’m h--“ and stopping short, flabbergasted by the place. The whole scene in the living room reminded me of a photograph I’d seen once at one of the museums we went to in New York, of a man sitting in a cluttered room with a canopy of lightbulbs hanging above him, almost threateningly.
Dad worked all March. Each morning I woke up like it was Christmas, in the still of early-morning, to watch him work.
“Morning Dad,” I’d say with a smile.
“Morning, Becky!” It was like being in a commercial for coffee. Sometimes that was the only thing we said to each other until dinner time, but I didn’t mind. It made me feel like a kid again.
On the first of April, he stopped working. I remember it very vividly, thinking it was an April Fool’s joke. I’d woken 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, but was instead angry with him. I was angry that he’d stopped working on this project I couldn’t even understand, 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 hope, regardless of what his goal had been.
I burst into his bedroom, where he was still sleeping.
“Dad!” I yelled. “What are you doing?! You’re supposed to be working!” My petulance overpowered my reason. Even as I’m writing this, I’m blushing a little in embarrassment.
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!”
But, looking at him, I was soon charmed. My face loosened and I smiled. He smiled right back. “I promise you,” he said, “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 I made for him.
“Here’s a list of some of the lighting fixtures that need to be screwed in. Could you take care of that for me?” I nodded. “Great. I’ll be home late, so if you wouldn’t mind making dinner for the two of us but eating without me, I’d appreciate it.” Ever the egalitarian. Begrudgingly I assented, and he walked out the door with a fresh kiss on the cheek.
I felt the desperate urge to follow him, but I didn’t need to. I knew he was going to the junkyard on the way to Summit. I followed him with the binoculars as far as I could, then set upon my responsibilities.
I completed his list and cooked a whole pot of stew, so there would be plenty for him when he got back. I lay on the couch reading. When I had to light a candle to be able to see, I started worrying. It didn’t normally take him that long. When he finally got back, I could hear him whistling as he came up the path. He walked into the house, feigning surprise that I’d stayed up waiting for him. He was carrying a long metal rod in one hand, and in the other a heavy box. I could tell from the sweat on his face and the loud “thud” that the box made when he put it down, that it was that weight which had kept him out so late. Likewise, the backpack he was wearing made a clanking sound. Undoubtedly he would have had to stop many times along the way. Despite my anger, I didn’t ask questions about why he didn’t ask for help, or what it was he’d brought back.
“What is this, the inquisition?” He would have asked. You know all about it; when Dad is keeping a secret, he keeps it. So I reheated stew for him and went quietly to bed.
The next morning, at breakfast, Dad asked me if I wanted to exercise with him in the basement some time that day. We still had the old elliptical exercise machine in the basement, as well as the stationary bike! They hadn’t been touched in years, dormant even before the Blackout. Since Mom died.
”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. He was probably just feeling out of shape given the time it’d taken him to get back the previous night, but he was skinny as ever. His age was really starting to show.
“How am I going to maintain my girlish figure when you won’t stop feeding me?!” I giggled again and gave him a loving hit on the shoulder.
“Ok, dad. Let your food digest, and then I’ll come exercise with you.”
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, so the lack of power was irrelevant.
We ended up exercising 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, often for hours, pretending we were traversing the beautiful European countryside, sometimes pretending to be on the way to visiting you. And we talked about anything and everything. 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 talking. When he would stop talking, I would ask more questions.
“Dad, I was talking to Jimmy yesterday,” I said one day, while we were touring France, “and he said that a mechanical generator would still work, that it wouldn’t have been affected by the Wave. Is that true?”
He smiled and said, “I’ll be right back.”
He walked to the closet in the musty corner, the one where you and I used to pretend to be spider-hunters, throwing the dusty beams from our Little Mermaid flashlights around the room. When he came back, he was carrying a large metal contraption. It wasn’t the box I’d seen him come back with that day from the junkyard. It was something else. Something dusty. It had been there for a long time.
“What’s that?” I asked.
He pulled out a chain from underneath the treadmill that I hadn’t noticed before. He hooked it onto some round, moveable part on the box, then stood up.
“Do me a favor?” He asked.
“Get on the treadmill and start jogging. Leisurely pace is fine. I just need to go get something from upstairs.”
He left, and I got on. I jogged for all of thirty seconds, before my excitement took hold and I felt like sprinting. When he got back downstairs, I was already starting to sweat.
He laughed. “OK, OK! Go easy, I don’t want you to pass out before the unveiling!”
I slowed down, and laughed the little breathy laugh I could.
“An electric generator or electric motor that uses field coils rather than permanent magnets needs a current flow to be present in the field coils for the device to be able to work. Even if there’s no power in the field coils, the rotor can still spin without producing any electricity. So, really big power station generators used to utilize a separate, smaller generator to get the field coils of the larger one electrified.
“See, they were prepared for the possibility that there might be severe and widespread power outages at some point. They weren’t prepared for what we’ve ended up dealing with, but they were at least prepared to a certain extent, if not on the necessarily large scale.”
He produced a light bulb, socket, and cable from behind his back. My heart jumped and I ran faster again.
Screwing the light bulb into the socket, he continued. “Anyway, if a power station were to have been completely isolated from any power source, which is called ‘islanding,’ they knew the stations would need to perform what they call a ‘black start’ to excite the fields of their largest generators, in order to restore customer power service.”
He plugged the wire into the box.
“It’s called ‘excitation.’”
Upstairs, it was getting late and the rain was coming down hard. It was the first thunderstorm. It was the thunder that had interrupted the moth dance our eyes were doing around that single bulb. The moment the thunder clapped, his head jerked upward, and he went out to the shed. He came back to the house with the metal rod. Down in the basement, he pulled out the junkyard box, which wasn’t a box at all. It was a square, metal thing with two metal nubs protruding from the top. One had a plastic cap on it with the single symbol, “+.” The generator still hooked up to the treadmill, he added the new box to the chain.
“Time to start running for real.”
When he came back downstairs twenty minutes later, I was drenched. At that point, 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. Dad told me to stop, so I stopped. We walked out to the front lawn.
He looked up at the roof. I could see the rod, on its side.
“Son of a gun,” he said, and he climbed onto the roof for what was presumably the second time. 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. That was all I could do, was watch.
“Come down, Dad!” I wanted to yelled to him from below. But I said nothing.
“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.
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 squarely. 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 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 to stay closed. Kneeling over Dad, 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. I completely forgot about Dad, who could very well have been dead beneath me for all I knew. The bulbs didn’t quite maintain a constant luminosity, but rather they pulsated rhythmically as they all shared the common power source. The light and the rhythm were hypnotic.
I looked away for a moment. I could make out the wall of St. Simon’s. Then, looking a bit further down the hill, I could make out figures coming toward us. They were all coming up Marison St. I looked down to see Dad grinning at me, despite the blood I could see on his old Levis. The orange 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 Dad, who was sitting up by then, as if he were a campfire. The youngest children lay on their bellies just under the little lights of our path, batting at them, admiring the tiny fairies that dangled above them. Still others danced as brilliantly as if they were the first on Earth to see this.
Once my eyes adjusted to the bright light, I 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, like getting into a full bathtub. 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 for the first time at the beach in Florida, the lights from the nearby restaurants tiny in the distance. The small samples of perfume from magazines that I would smell while wearing Mom’s clothing. A broken pact with my childhood best friend, Liza. The deep recesses of my memory froze like fugitives under flashlights. Thoughts I’d stashed away with the old appliances, somehow. It was a reunion party, and I was there wearing my most beautiful polka-dotted dress. I cried, and I smiled, 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. My smile followed after them. The darkness closed back in and got more watered-down, more permeable, as before, yet somehow more complete than before. 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 Dad, 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 dressed the wound, got him a small glass of Scotch (Chivas Regal, what else?) to manage the pain, and readied him for the trip to the hospital, like dressing a child for a romp in its first snowstorm, or the first day of school. Like he dressed us for ours. I looked at him, and he looked back. The lights in his eyes, untouched by that final bolt, were still on.
Nancy, I miss you ever so dearly.