Thomas Wictor

We scream the body electric

We scream the body electric

There’s something about my family and electricity. For one thing, Tim, our sister Carrie, and I are SLIders. Street light interference (SLI) phenomenon may or may not exist. I’m agnostic about whether it’s real, but Tim, Carrie, and I began noticing during our childhood that an awful lot of street lights went out right as we passed them. It only happens when we’re under stress, and always exactly when we’re right next to them. Not in front or behind them; right next to them.

We can’t do it on command, so from a scientific standpoint, we don’t have this…thingie. I can’t call it an ability. I’m sure that strapping a camera to us would interfere with whatever is or isn’t happening, so the only way to see if it’s real would be for someone to put us under surveillance without our knowledge during periods of stress.

Over to you, NSA.

An indisputably real phenomenon is that we’ve had far more electrocutions than the average family. I’m positive of that. Dad was the Electrocution King. The first time I saw him do it was in Venezuela, when there was something wrong with the wall socket. I think a prong on a plug had broken off in it and was sticking out. Mom told Dad to call Mr. “Hoover,” who lived next door. He was an electrician.

Mr. Hoover fascinated me because his right arm was that of a small child’s. I have it in my head that he’d broken his arm as a kid, and they put it in a cast that was so tight that his arm stopped growing. I can’t remember who told me that; I may have imagined it. His arm was functional, but it was only about eleven inches long. Very nice man with a completely surreal arm. The Hoovers also had a parrot that sang opera all day. Nobody explained that it was a parrot, so I thought it was a crazy lady.

I pictured her as tall and thin, with glasses, a long nose, and a pageboy haircut. When she sang, I imagined her capering around, pumping her knees up and down and clawing at the air with both hands. She wore a 1950s flocked skirt and spent the day singing, capering, and clawing the air. Why would a crazy lady who sang opera live with the Hoovers? Mine was not to reason why. Questions were not encouraged.

So Mom told Dad to call Mr. Hoover, but Dad said he knew what he was doing. He bent over the socket, and CRACK! A blue-white bolt of electricity shot out of the socket and into his hand. Dad recoiled, shouting, “Oh boy! Oh boy!” That’s what he always yelled when he hurt himself. His fingers were black, and there was a black, explosion-shaped smoke smudge on the wall above the socket. Dad shoved his fingers into his mouth, getting soot all over his lips and teeth.

“Oh boy!” he cried as he fled to the kitchen. Since his fingers were in his mouth, it sounded like, “Oh woy! Oh woy!

I once electrocuted Dad. Unintentionally. I’ll get to that later.

When we lived in Holland, Tim took an electric extension cord on a reel and tried to replace the plug. After he unscrewed the hard-plastic cover and exposed the wires, he screamed and dropped the whole thing.

“What happened?” I yelled at him.

“I got shocked! Someone plugged in the fucking cord!”

We went and looked, and sure enough, someone had plugged in the cord after Tim started working on it. The Netherlands used 230 volts, not 110 like here.

“Great,” Tim said. “So someone tried to murder me.”

Since I was in the room with him, he knew it wasn’t me. We had a lot of problems as a family. Or maybe it was an honest mistake. Dad liked everything to be in its place. Maybe he saw a plug beside a socket and figured the two had to be merged for all to be right with the world.

When I was in college, I managed a spectacular electrocution stunt. I had a crappy little TV I used only to watch old movies late at night. The first time I saw The Story of Three Loves was on that TV. It’s one of my favorites. Extremely haunting and beautiful, especially “Mademoiselle” and “Equilibrium,” the latter of which introduced me to the tragic Pier Angeli, another ghost.

I told a drama student I knew that I couldn’t sleep and was having anxiety attacks. He explained a relaxation technique he’d learned from his professor. In retrospect this may have been another of the many pranks played on me in my life, so DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS.

He told me to squat, exhale until my lungs were completely empty, and jump to a standing position. I did as he instructed, and when fully upright, I blacked out. It was as though I’d been hit on the top of the head with a hammer. I saw stars, fell onto my back, and convulsed. My legs thrashed and my arms flailed. Only semiconscious, I stood, lost my balance, and fell against the TV, which was on a shelf above my bed. I grabbed at the TV and discovered that there was a bare wire going from the set to the rabbit ears.

Standing there seeing stars, I was electrocuted and went as rigid as a statue. Around 15 milliamps (mA) is where you get into the “freezing current” range, also called the “let-go current,” which is right at the point when your muscles contract and you can’t let go of what’s shocking you. The electrocution went on and on, waves of alternating-current electricity cycling through me, my hand clenched tight and bolts of excruciating pain shooting into my chest and head.

Luckily I was at a strange angle, because eventually I toppled over, bringing the TV with me and unplugging it. The TV fell on the bed and didn’t break, while I fell on the floor and lay there, unsure if I’d survived. After a while I rose, plugged in the TV again, lay on my bed, and watched an old movie, wondering if I’d done permanent damage to my brain and heart.

After college I went to Japan and became a semiprofessional bassist. I electrocuted myself at least a dozen times over the years I practiced in studios and played in nightclubs. There were faulty amplifiers, faulty guitar cords, faulty microphones, and faulty sound systems just waiting to pour their juice into me. I built a couple of bass guitars and didn’t ground one of them properly, so I electrocuted myself when I plugged it in and touched the strings.

My body itself generates static electricity. I’m constantly shocking myself and others. Today in Sam’s Club, every time I opened a refrigerated case or touched my cart, I got Kih! Kih! Kih! Kih! I have no idea how that’s possible, since I wear rubber-soled shoes. The tenth or twelfth pin-stab made me want to twirl and shriek. I knew if I started, I wouldn’t be able to stop, so I refrained.

All my siblings besides Tim have electrocuted themselves in my presence. I’ve seen all of them scream in pain when they touched a live wire or an appliance that malfunctioned and shocked them. Pat was nearly killed when he leaned against the drier, Carrie’s radio zapped her, and Paul once managed to connect the terminals on a car battery by laying a wrench across them.

Dad blew up a car battery when he tried to jump-start another car. There was that familiar blue flash, and then the battery flew apart and sprayed acid all over everything. After that, whenever he jump-started a car, I was always standing behind the trunk of the dead car. To this day I hate jump-starting cars. I won’t do it, so if you flag me down, don’t ask. We’ll call AAA.

The fact that my siblings and I are all still alive might mean that we’re not as susceptible to electricity as normal humans. I know Dad had an unnatural tolerance for electric shock, because not only did I see him shock himself at least twenty times, I almost killed him in Texas.

We all had to do chores, and mine was to vacuum the floor of the garage-workshop. We had two dogs, Chubby and Charlie. Chubby was a border collie who came with the house. His owners had taken him to their new home twenty-five miles away, but Chubby kept coming back to his old house. He had only three legs, his right front paw having been caught in a coyote trap. To escape, he chewed off his leg. He’d been a triped for most of his life.

Chubby was fourteen years old. Since he refused to leave anyway, we agreed to keep him, despite the mutual antagonism between him and our Venezuelan German shepherd-Dachshund mix (yes) Charlie. They mostly avoided each other but fought at dinnertime. We therefore fed Chubby in the carport and Charlie in Dad’s workshop.

One night, as I vacuumed the floor, I spilled water from Charlie’s bowl. Curious to see what would happen, I vacuumed it up. This was one of the old Electrolux canister vacs, an all-metal device.

Vacuuming up water seemed to work fine. To continue the experiment, I stuck the wand into the full bowl and sucked up all the water. And I electrocuted myself. My arm shook as painful blasts of electricity shot through me. I couldn’t let go; we were past the freezing-current range. Somehow I thought of swinging the wand against the wall and knocking it out of my hand. Then I unplugged the vacuum cleaner.

At the time—fifth grade—I was a compendium of nervous tics. Blinking and sniffing were the most pronounced. Dad would bellow, “STOP BLINKING! STOP SNIFFING!” It wasn’t an effective remedy. What it did do was encourage me to lie when I screwed up. I went and found Dad in his study and told him that something was wrong with the vacuum cleaner. He accompanied me to his shop and picked up the canister.

“Plug it in,” he commanded.

“But it’ll shock you,” I said.

“Don’t give me any lip! Plug it in!”

So I plugged it in, and Dad began dancing.

It’s hot!” he shouted as his feet beat a syncopated tattoo on the cement floor. “It’s hot! Unplug it!

I unplugged it, and he stopped dancing. We didn’t discuss the fact that I’d told him what would happen, but he’d ignored me and had experienced exactly what I’d predicted. Instead, he opened the front door of the vacuum cleaner, took out the sodden bag, and poured the water into the sink.

“I think Charlie must’ve pissed on the floor, and you vacuumed it up without seeing it,” he said.

Yeah!” I nearly screamed. “That’s what happened, I’ll bet!”

My relief was beatific in its intensity. Charlie was safe; Dad loved him and never hurt him. I felt bad about blaming him, but Dad thought it was funny. When he fed Charlie that night, he gently chucked him under the chin.

“You electrocuted me, you rascal!” he said.

I didn’t learn until years later that “hot” is the engineer’s term for something through which an electric current is passing. Even as he was being electrocuted, Dad had the presence of mind to use the proper jargon.

That took amazing mental discipline. Unfortunately, since I wasn’t an engineer, I thought he meant the vacuum cleaner was hot-like-a-baked-potato. That may have slowed my reactions. I might’ve shown more alacrity if he’d shouted, “I’M BEING ELECTROCUTED!

What my electrocution of Dad taught me was the importance of choosing between strict accuracy and generating the desired response.

It’s a lesson I’ve incorporated into my writing.

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