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J U N E 1 9 9 8
HEY rang the doorbell at ten past eight, introduced themselves as Willow and Bishop Bodman, and smiled briefly before letting their faces sag again. They looked vaguely familiar, the sort of people I often saw deliberating over peaches in the food co-op or hanging around the fringes of college functions and arts events. One of them wore cologne that smelled like hot tea. Bishop was tall, well over six feet, with a scraggly red beard and wire-rimmed glasses. He wore baggy shorts and sandals made of rubber and rope. Willow had a thin face and dark hair with an impertinent swatch of white near her temple. She wore a long rayon skirt with big red poppies on it, and I almost asked her where she got it. My own dress was black, because of the occasion.
I led them into the living room, where they sat gingerly on the edge of the sofa, as if they were in physical pain. It was getting dark outside, so I turned on a floor lamp, causing the colored beads I'd sewn onto the lampshade to rattle together. The Bodmans turned their faces toward me, irritated and expectant, their look reminding me of my girls when they were babies, waking too soon from a nap.
I settled down across from them in the room's most comfortable chair, feeling uncomfortable about taking it. "Let me say again how sorry I am," I said. "It's so awful."
They nodded as if I'd said something profound.
I forced myself to keep talking. "Jason was such a sweet kid. I feel lucky to have known him."
"Was he a good poet?" Willow said. Her large brown eyes blinked slowly. "I'm a teacher too," she added. "Fourth grade." She clasped her hands on her poppy skirt. "Do you think his work was publishable?"
"Well, sure," I said. "Eventually."
Bishop turned on his wife as if he couldn't help himself, as if he were a dog trained to attack. "What else can she say?" Then he glanced back at me. "Could I trouble you for something to drink? Maybe a glass of wine?"
Maeve, I knew, was lurking behind the kitchen door. "Honey, bring in three glasses of wine," I called.
Willow pushed her clasped hands between her knees. "I don't mean to put you on the spot," she said. "He wanted to be a poet when he grew up. That's why I'm asking."
"Jason wanted to be a magician." Bishop's face flushed underneath the beard -- the same way his son used to flush when I called on him in class. In the kitchen I could hear pans banging. I wondered what on earth Maeve was doing.
Willow fingered the beads on my lamp. "Very cre-a-tive," she said. "Jason painted coffee mugs in his spare time."
Just then Maeve entered the room, barefoot and dressed in a frilly pink party dress, one she never wore anymore because it was too tight. She was carrying an Egyptian lacquered tray she'd dug out of some cabinet. The tray had a bottle of wine and three wineglasses on it. I hadn't meant for her to bring in the bottle -- the wine was the cheapest grocery-store kind.
"This is my daughter Maeve," I said.
Maeve nodded at our guests, set the tray down on the coffee table, and began to pour the first glass, hamming it up as if she were a waitress in some snooty restaurant. I wanted to yell at her, but I just watched, mesmerized. I'd never known her to behave in such a fashion.
"None for me," Willow said, suddenly sitting back on the couch.
"Then I won't have any either," Bishop said, and grimaced.
"Me either," I said, although I felt like guzzling the whole bottle. "Sorry, honey."
Maeve set the bottle down, picked up the full glass, and slid into the chair opposite mine, tugging the pink dress down over her thighs. She put her feet up on the coffee table and dipped her little finger into the glass.
"You can't drink wine," I said. "What's wrong with you?"
"I'm just holding the glass," she said, smiling like someone in a TV commercial.
"Here's the thing." Bishop fixed me with an intense look, so intense that I could feel myself shrinking back. "At the time of his death Jason was researching Dr. Walford Bodie, the Electric Wizard. A great stage performer from the turn of the century. Dr. Bodie could run electricity through his body, thousands of volts, and not feel a thing, because he'd built up a tolerance."
Maeve was ogling Bishop, and I wanted to reach over and cover her ears.
"Dr. Bodie was against capital punishment," Bishop went on. "Really ahead of his time. He used an electric chair from Sing Sing in his act. He'd bring up a subject from the audience, hypnotize him, and then partly electrocute him right there so people could see the horror of it. He'd turn off the current just in time and slap the subject back to consciousness. It was very effective."
"Too bad you couldn't do that to Jason," Maeve said.
A terrible silence filled the room.
"Slap him back to consciousness, I mean."
Bishop filled one of the wineglasses on the coffee table, held it in front of him briefly, frowned, and then set it back down again. His rubber sandal tapped frantically on the floor. The newspaper said he'd been the one who found his son in the tub.
Willow snatched up the wineglass as if she'd been waiting for him to put it down. "Jason had the soul of a poet," she told me, and took a sip. "Most poets are miserable, don't you think?" Her patch of white hair fell forward to conceal one eye.
"Oh, that's just a myth." I felt as if she'd cornered me at a cocktail party I hadn't even wanted to come to.
"Aren't you a poet?"
Maeve watched us, entranced. She held her glass by the stem, and drops of wine spilled onto her dress.
"I used to write poetry," I said. "Back in graduate school. But then ..." I waved my hand to indicate the house, my children. "I don't really miss it," I said. "You're supposed to miss it. But the desire to write poems just lifted from me, like a heavy cape."
"That's a poetic turn of phrase right there," Willow said. Her wineglass was empty.
Why had I used that pretentious simile? "I'm more of a dabbler now," I said.
"She ties flies," Maeve said. "She just made a really cool Bubble Pup."
"I do it for fun," I said, "and sometimes I use them in my teaching. One girl in Jason's class wrote a wonderful poem about a Red Quill. It was a very successful exercise."
"No, it wasn't," Olive said. She was sitting on the stairs, and we all looked up. She peered down at us through the banister rails as if she were safe inside her castle, safe from our reprisal. "You told me that exercise flopped."
I grinned appeasingly, like a monkey. "That's my daughter Olive," I said.
Willow licked her lips. "Jason did free writing in his journal every morning," she said.
Bishop snorted. "He never said anything important. He only wrote about food."
"Food's important," Willow said, but her voice lacked confidence.
Maeve offered her glass of wine to Willow. "A bear might eat my dad," she confided. "Maybe sixty pounds of him."
Willow accepted the glass with an awkward nod. "Sixty pounds of your dad is a lot." Then she turned back to me. "Is your husband a poet too?" She poured the wine down her throat.
"Ex," I said. "He's a wildlife biologist."
"Dr. Bodie wasn't just an entertainer," Bishop announced. "He used electricity to heal. He would connect himself to an electrical condenser and apply current to the patient with his bare hands."
"Doctor Bodie was a total fraud." Willow set down the second glass, now empty. "It was proved in a court of law," she said, her nostrils flaring. The white patch of hair made her look like a nervous piebald horse. Whoa, I thought.
"Hundreds of witnesses saw him," Bishop said, and made that awful gulping sound. "Sparks would fly, and a cripple would get up and walk again."
Willow shook her finger at Bishop. "You gave Jason that book because you wanted to be a magician. It was your book."
Bishop recoiled. Suicide or experiment, either way he could blame himself, but I didn't think she'd meant to blame him. She was just talking. "Jason had no more desire to be a magician than I do," she said.
"Do you?" Maeve said.
"Do I what?" Willow said.
"Want to be a magician?"
"It's just a figure of speech," I told Maeve, my stomach churning. Our conversation had come completely unmoored.
"Are you in third grade?" Willow asked Maeve, pouring herself another glass of wine.
"Why not drink straight out of the bottle?" Bishop muttered.
"She'll be in fourth," Olive said from her castle.
"What's seven dollars times eight?" Willow said.
Maeve squirmed, blinking as if she might burst into tears.
Willow faced her husband again. "If you'd wanted him to be a scientist, that would make sense. Or an inventor." She waved the glass of wine as if she were shooing a bug. "Hey! I've got a great idea for an invention. A toilet seat that comes down automatically after a man's used it! What do you think?" Her mouth stretched wide in a false grin.
Bishop covered his face with his hands.
I cleared my throat. "About Jason's poem," I said.
Jason's parents sagged back against the sofa, and their blind clawing at each other ceased. It's just the two of them now, I thought. They aren't parents anymore. A bubble of hysteria rose in my throat. What were they going to do? Nothing, apparently. They sat calmly, waiting to hear Jason's poem, and the weight of what had happened to them hung heavily in the room. I hoped they'd start fighting again. My resolution to be honest was seeping away.
"I could only recall the gist of that poem," I said, "so I didn't write it down. I would've been making some of it up."
"We don't mind," Willow said.
"Could you recite it right now?" Bishop said, in what sounded like his courtroom manner.
"Maybe," I said. Why had I let these people into my house? I crossed and uncrossed my legs, trying to think of something to say about the Italian driver in Kip's poem -- did he have a name? Why was he Italian? I couldn't form the first line in my brain.
Willow poured herself more wine. Bishop didn't seem to notice. He was staring at me.
I pointed at Willow's skirt. "I like your poppies," I said.
"She's thinking," Maeve announced, and scooped up an empty wineglass.
The silence in the room went on and on. Maeve began flicking the glass with her fingernail -- tink tink tink. I told myself that I would be betraying Jason's spirit if I made up a poem on his behalf. But what about his desperate parents, who were right here in my living room? I closed my eyes and ordered myself to invent something meaningful and comforting and publishable, but I knew I didn't really need to. The Bodmans just wanted to hear a poem, any old poem, more than anything in the world, and I, who'd probably written a hundred poems, couldn't help them. I didn't trust my words not to reveal my own, and Jason's, inadequacies.
Bishop picked up the empty wine bottle by the neck, dangling it back and forth. "Is there a poem or isn't there?" I could feel his anger billowing up again, this time surging toward me instead of his wife. In the lamplight his face faded in and out of focus, fuzzy and then too sharp. His glasses glinted in a scary manner. Was this anger the reason Jason couldn't write anything? I was having trouble breathing.
Finally Olive spoke. "Mother told it to me," she said. "I bet I can remember it."
We all turned toward Olive, who stood up on the stairs as if she were preparing to deliver a speech. She wore one of her father's T-shirts, which hung past her knees, a T-shirt he'd gotten in the Mercy Hospital Road Race. RUN FOR FUN, it said.
"This poem is called 'Only Child.'" Olive took a deep breath. As far as I knew, Olive had never written, or even read, any poetry of her own free will. I wanted to rush up and silence her, but at the same time I couldn't wait to hear what she was going to say. "It's hard to be an only child," she began. "The laps I sit in disappear. Naked, I crawl forward, wondering why. Not caring if I live or die. Nobody knows me. They only know my name. And my test scores. Who's to blame?" She sat down abruptly, looking exhausted. "That's all," she said.
"There's a little more," Maeve said, rubbing her dry feet together. "Country music, rubber knives. The Electric Wizard's quite a guy."
"There was a line about God flunking his driver's test," I said. "Somewhere in there."
"Thank you," Bishop said, almost sheepishly.
"That bit about the laps disappearing," Willow said. "Breathtaking. Could you write the whole thing down?" she asked Olive.
"She doesn't need to." Bishop replaced the wine bottle in the exact center of the tray. "I have the information I need."
FTER Jason's parents left, the girls and I went outside and sat on the patio in our iron chairs. The lacy grillwork cut into my thighs. It was full dark -- too cloudy to see the stars. A slight breeze was blowing, teasing us with the faint smell of a neighbor's cookout, and fireflies were beginning to pulse all over the yard. It was too early in the year for cicadas, but I could feel their imminence, the sound that would signal the beginning of fall.
"Who is Dr. Bodie?" Maeve said. "How come I've never heard of him?"
"He's the Electric Wizard," Olive said. "Duh."
I slid down in my chair, hoping that Jason had been experimenting with electricity when he'd died. Had he been too caught up in his experiment to panic? It was the being shut out, the not knowing, that Maeve and I couldn't bear. Did Olive really not want to know? Maybe she was too afraid even to let herself wonder. I'd never had the courage to imagine what might lie beneath her reserve. Maybe I was as bad as Jason's parents, who'd seemed to think that his suicidal behavior arose from genius.
"Why couldn't I drink the wine?" Maeve asked me. She looked like a small pink ghost in the big chair. "Why couldn't I even taste it?" she said. "Are you afraid I'll turn into an alcoholic? If I did, I'd join AA."
She was relaxed, assured -- a bit of a ham. She might become an actress, I thought, and the thought disturbed me, mostly because it was something I'd never even considered.
"Being an alcoholic is no joke," Olive said, drawing her knees up underneath her T-shirt. "It's not something to laugh about. I think Jason's mother is one. She drank the whole bottle of wine."
I was probably duty-bound, as a mother, to deliver a lecture on either drinking or lying, but at the moment neither seemed important. Something between us had cracked open, and I wasn't ready for it to close. "That was really amazing what you did in there," I told Olive. "Where'd that poem come from? It was breathtaking."
"It was really about me."
Maeve slapped a mosquito on her calf. "You're not an only child, honey pot," she said.
But she is a child, I thought. The same age as Jason. She's the one who would know, if any of us could, the worries and fears he might've had. I asked her, pleaded with her, "Don't you care whether you live or die?"
She hugged her legs tighter, her pointed chin resting on her knee. "If something happens to Daddy, I might not care. Or to you."
Her words hit me like a jolt and I ached to reassure her, to cover up, to make light, but for the moment I resisted. I remembered the Italian man lifting his hands from the wheel. God, will you drive? I was already bracing myself, bracing for the crash. But I also knew that most changes don't begin with a crash. They start in quiet places like that strange New Orleans shop filled with fans and mirrors, and they continue gradually, for years, and we don't even notice. I glanced at the glowing hands of my watch.
"Jason showed me a magic trick," I said. "Did I tell you?"
"No," they both said, but in completely different ways.
"Hold my hands," I said.
We sat there for a few seconds, and then, at exactly 9:35 P.M., our neighbors' security lamp came on. "See, it worked," I said.
"Wow!" Maeve said.
"Could be just a coincidence," Olive said.
Our yard pulsed with an eerie greenish light, illuminating our tomato plants, our cracked marble birdbath, our joined hands, a spectacle that might have inspired the Electric Wizard himself. I wanted to gather it all in, to capture and hold it somehow, and keep us for a while just as we were, before we became whatever it was we were going to be.
Elizabeth Stuckey-French recently received the James Michener Grant from the University of Iowa, to enable her to complete a collection of short stories.
Illustrations by Michelle Chang
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1998; Electric Wizard; Volume 281, No. 6; pages 74 - 82.