Electric Wizard

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

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THREE weeks after Jason's death his father got hold of me on the phone. "Ms. Penrose? You were Jason's last teacher." It sounded like an accusation.

I wrapped the phone cord around my hand, wishing I had let the answering machine pick up. "I'm so sorry," I said, hoping my apology would cover both Jason's death and my own lousy teaching. I stared down at the Turkish rug, and for the first time I noticed little white nubs among the blue and green threads, as if it were aging as I watched.

"I'm calling to see if he might've said something," said Jason's father, whose name was Bishop. "Or done something. To indicate his state of mind." Bishop made a gulping sound -- holding back a sob? Taking a slug of Scotch? Jason was their only child. His death had been ruled a suicide.

I sank down onto the Turkish rug like a tent collapsing. "He seemed fine to me," I said, which wasn't entirely true. Jason, a redheaded, rubbery-looking boy with knobby knees and black glasses, had been a student in my poetry-writing class, part of a college camp for gifted kids. "I knew him for such a short time," I said, stretching out flat on my back. "I'm probably not the best person to ask."

"Did he write about anything, you know ... ?"

I watched the blades of the ceiling fan go around and around, and thought about the antiques store in New Orleans where my ex-husband, Grant, and I had bought the rug, a dim room full of low, ponderous ceiling fans and ornate mirrors. At that same shop Grant secretly bought a full-length mirror I'd been admiring and had it shipped home to Indiana to surprise me. Out of some stupid newlywed parsimoniousness I sent it back.

"They all write about death," I said to Bishop. "It's junior high." I cringed at the flipness of my words.

"The thing is," Bishop said, "he never showed us any of his poems. He must've thrown them all away." I heard the gulping sound again. It sounded like a chicken making a single cluck.

"I really can't remember what he wrote," I said, and then quickly added, "or the writing of any of my students. I've had so many." That wasn't entirely true either. I remembered a poem written by a girl named Matisse about some passengers in a plane crash slowly drifting down toward the fields of southern Indiana. And Heather's poem about getting poison ivy. And my favorite, Kip's poem about God flunking his driver's test. But the unpleasant fact was that Jason hadn't written a single poem during the entire two weeks of my class. He'd played on the Internet during class writing time, and I had let him do it, telling myself that the camp was voluntary, that no one received grades, and that I wasn't going to make both our lives miserable. Already I was spending six hours a day, glorious June days, shut up in a classroom with fifteen eighth-graders, something I did every summer to supplement my income from community-college teaching. Usually the kids were eager and uninhibited and talented enough to make the whole thing worthwhile, but I'd had a few resisters over the years, and Jason was by far the most stubborn. Perhaps I sensed that his refusal to write was simply a strand in some larger tangle, and I certainly didn't want to start groping around, exposing things neither one of us was equipped to deal with. In any case, his failure to produce poems reflected badly on both of us, and I hoped no one else would find out.

Rain began to patter against the sliding glass door, and I turned my head from the fan to watch the rain. My girls were still at the swimming pool. "I've got two daughters," I said. "One's Jason's age. I worry about them all the time."

"Is anything coming back to you?" Bishop asked. "I need to know if he left any clues." According to a newspaper article, which quoted various friends and relatives, Jason had a fascination with death, with what a person would feel like right before he died. His parents had caught him playing at hanging himself before, the article said. But this time he'd electrocuted himself by dropping a blow dryer into his bathtub. I thought, Playing at hanging himself? Why didn't his idiot parents commit him the first time? I wondered if maybe, since he was in the gifted-and-talented program at school, they thought he was just acting like a curious little genius.

I remembered Jason on the last night of camp, standing on one leg, storklike, at the front of the auditorium full of eighth-graders--his intense voice, his poise, his lively pouf of red hair. "He read a poem at the Evening of Sharing and did a great job," I told his father. "It was our group poem; each student wrote two lines and passed the work on to the next person. But I couldn't tell you which lines were his." I'd asked Jason to read the class poem because I felt guilty about our mutual failure, and his dramatic performance at the Evening of Sharing relieved some of my guilt. I'd begun looking forward to teaching again the next summer, anticipating more success all around.

"What about his own poems?" Bishop asked. "What were they about?"

The rain was coming down harder, at an angle. The sheets I'd hung out on the deck railing to dry were getting drenched. "You're mental," Kip had said to Jason once, in front of the entire class. Kip had twisted his flashy turquoise ring, leaning over Jason's desk. "He's just drawing pictures of the same little rat, over and over again." Jason had stared fiercely at his notebook, somebody in the back of the room had sniggered, and I had gone on talking about line breaks.

"I think I remember one poem," I said. The lie was like one of my daughters' Super Balls careening through the house. I could only watch anxiously to see where the next bounce would take it.

"Yes?" Bishop said.

"It was about God flunking his driver's test."

"Could I see this poem?" Bishop said. "Could I get a copy of it?" I'd read in the paper that Bishop was a lawyer.

"I don't have it," I said. "I'm sorry."

"Maybe you can rewrite it."

"I don't think so," I said. "I really only remember the last two lines." Kip's poem was about an Italian man who was driving through the countryside and happened to see a chapel so beautiful it caused him to have a sudden religious conversion. Euphoric, he took his hands off the wheel and said, "God, will you drive?" and his car immediately crashed. "God flunked his driver's test." So the poem was about death after all -- suicide, even -- but since it was laughing at death, I hadn't noticed.

"Do the best you can," Bishop said. "We could come by tonight to pick it up."

"Not tonight," I said. If Jason's mother was as pushy as his father, I thought, no wonder the boy wanted out. And, of course, I hadn't been any comfort to him either. I chastised myself with a nasty little movie in my head -- Jason hanging back again after all the other students left class so that he could walk out with me, refusing to talk to me or look at me directly, answering all my questions with a shrug. There I was, coaxing him along, trying to conceal my irritation, saying dumb, cheery things -- "Maybe you'll be inspired tomorrow!" And there he was, frowning and finally turning away, scuffing off to the dorms alone. He electrocuted himself two weeks after camp ended.

"Tomorrow night then," Bishop said. "Around eight."

I felt cornered and wanted to strike. "Why do you think your son was so curious about death?"

"That reporter got it all wrong," Bishop said. "Jason wasn't fascinated with death. He was fascinated by magic. He was experimenting with electricity. He wanted to be a magician, like the Electric Wizard, Dr. Walford Bodie."


Bishop's voice changed to that of a carnival barker. "The Greatest Novelty Act on Earth! The British Edison!"

I didn't like the sound of this. "Never heard of him," I said.

"Dr. Bodie could pass six thousand volts through his body," Bishop said. "He could light up sixteen incandescent lamps, holding them all in his bare hands. The crowd loved him." Bishop laughed, but it sounded like a series of wild hiccups.

"I'll see you tomorrow night," I told Bishop.

AT dinner we hung our heads over pasta with Alfredo sauce. Olive, who had just turned twelve, kept tucking her blonde hair behind her protuberant ears and sighing loudly between bites. When she was a baby, I used to look at her ears and wonder if they'd ruin her life, but gradually I convinced myself that nothing would shake Olive's serene sense of self. No mere physical irregularity, anyway. She was tall and graceful and seemed to live in a higher, calmer sphere than the rest of us.

Maeve let a dribble of milk run down her chin and then slurped it back up. She was eight. "Bernie Spalding was talking about Jason at the pool today," she said. She had a round face and curly hair bleached by chlorine to the various colors of winter weeds. I was certain then that I knew the inner core of both of my children. Whenever I wanted to summon up the essence of Maeve, I thought about her on a sunny fall afternoon, a chill in the air. I saw her running through the front yard, kicking up leaves, wearing a red sweater. Olive watched her from upstairs, curled up in the window seat, The Snow Goose, by Paul Gallico, open in her lap. The essence of Olive.

Now Olive looked up from her plate, her face like a mask. "Bad things happen," she said in a flat voice. "Every minute of every day. Can we change the subject?" Jason's family lived in the town across the river from ours, so Olive and Jason had gone to different schools, but they'd met that spring at a science camp in northern Indiana. They had spent a weekend together, collecting specimens of lake water and plants and examining them under high-powered microscopes, but Olive refused to tell us anything about him.

Maeve stirred her rigatoni vigorously. "Bernie said he was listening to the radio when he did it."

Outside, the rain was still coming down, splattering against the windows as if someone had turned a hose on our house, but our painted furniture gave the room a gaudy glow. Five years earlier, after my divorce, I'd gone on a painting binge, transforming every surface available -- furniture, lampshades, even the toaster -- with bright colors, dots, dashes, squiggles, and beads. Maeve liked the results, especially our dining table, which was Chinese red with a jagged Cree Indian design, but Olive was merely mystified. "How can you stand to make all those pointless dots?" she asked me. She had the same sort of reaction when I took up knitting and then fly-tying. Her father, Grant, spent his days studying black bears in Minnesota, sneaking into their hibernation dens to change the batteries in their collars. He'd promised Olive she could go along with him this fall.

Grant would be baffled by the little dance that was now going on at our dinner table every night. Maeve and I compulsively discussed Jason's life and death -- he'd built a tree house with an elevator, he'd won the soapbox derby three years in a row, he'd put on swimming goggles before he got into the bathtub -- and our conversations about him infuriated Olive. Her anger, as unexpected and irrational as our curiosity, only spurred us on. "What station do you suppose he listened to?" I asked Maeve.

"What difference does it make?" Olive said. "Morbid ghouls. Pass the salad."

I passed her the salad bowl, a cumbersome crystal thing we'd gotten as a wedding gift. I kept hoping it would break, but it never did.

"It was country and western," Maeve said. "That's what Bernie said, anyway."

I said, "I can't picture Jason listening to Reba McIntyre."

"Maybe he liked the newer country stars," Maeve said. "Like Travis Tritt."

"You don't know a thing about country music," Olive told Maeve. "Or anything about anything."

"Bernie also said he collected rubber knives." Maeve covered her mouth, and I wondered if she'd been making some of this up.

"You know," I said, giving Maeve a little wink, "I ran into the Grouts, Jason's neighbors, at the food co-op yesterday. I guess Jason's parents let his pigeons loose, and they're taking over the neighborhood, pooping all over everything."

Olive glared at me. "Jason didn't have any pigeons."

Maeve looked up hopefully. "What'd he have?"

Thunder rattled the windows, and the lights blinked off and then on again. Maeve and Olive froze, their forks in midair. The previous summer lightning had struck our neighbors' tree, and the current, snaking underground and invading our wires, blew our telephone right off the wall. I wanted to dive under the table, but I sat up straighter. "Did Jason have any pets?" I asked Olive, hoping to trick her with my matter-of-fact tone, but she just shook her head.

We all went back to our pasta, and I felt as if the three of us had always lived alone, eating our lonely dinner, the rain endlessly falling. Grant left us gradually, spending more and more time up north with his bears, until at last I realized that we were already separated. At this very moment a bear might be dragging Grant's lifeless body down the trail. How many weeks would pass before we found out?

Maeve tried again. "Bernie Spalding said that Jason was naked when he did it."

"He was taking a bath, stupid."

"Jason's parents are coming over tomorrow night," I told the girls, hearing the self-importance in my voice. "To talk about Jason. His father says he wanted to be a magician."

"Cool!" Maeve said.

Olive sighed and gazed at the ceiling.

"They want me to give them a poem of Jason's," I said. "And I don't have one."

"So?" Olive said.

Exactly, I thought, popping a caper into my mouth. I decided I wouldn't try to re-create the driver's-test poem for Jason's parents. I still thought it was a brilliant poem, but to them it would seem silly and cynical, and besides, Jason hadn't written it. I would tell them the truth. Their son hadn't felt like writing, and I hadn't felt like making him write.

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

The Atlantic Monthly; June 1998; Electric Wizard; Volume 281, No. 6; pages 74 - 82.