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Singing through you to meThunderbolts caught easily

—Captain Beefheart, “Electricity”

The first time I can remember being electrocuted, I was nine and my parents and I were visiting my brother Joe and his family in the country. He drove a flatbed semitruck at the time and earlier in the day he’d removed its transmission. Alone in the garage later, investigating the remains, I stuck a long, metal wire into an outlet and felt it snap back at me from my hand, as if it were a snake. I tried to let go but couldn’t. In an instant, my muscles had become someone else’s. Electricity’s.

The wire thumped in a slow rhythm, it hurt, and it was very interesting. For a moment, I thought I was going to die. Somehow, I managed to get the wire out of my hand and jumped back. I was all alone. It was early evening, the adults inside making dinner, watching television. There was a workbench in a pool of light over to my right. The smell of oil on concrete. Tools hung against a fiberboard wall, each inside its own black magic-marker halo. I decided not to tell anyone what had just happened.

Electric companies I have known: National Grid, Duke Energy, Westar, Con Edison, Gulf Power, Constellation Energy, Kissimmee Utility Authority, Xcel Energy, Salt River Project, American Electric, Progress Energy, The Illuminating Company.

Last month I did some minor home electrical repair. I disconnected our doorbell so that it wouldn’t ring anymore.

The thing had lately begun malfunctioning to the extent that rather than ringing, it would abrasively buzz when no one had pushed the button. I’d hear this racket, walk to the top of the stairs, and see no one out there. The third or fourth time you [End Page 78] find yourself smiling at invisible strangers standing on your front steps, it’ll get to you.

At first, I simply stopped answering the doorbell. I wasn’t to be made a fool of that easily. Then it took to buzzing nonstop, usually in the afternoon when the house was quiet and I was beginning to think about what to cook for dinner. The first few times, I opened the front door, wiggled the button, and the noise stopped. Once, my girlfriend and I arrived home after a weekend away, and the buzzer was droning away at top volume. Evidence of an aborted burglary? Did our poor cat have a headache from forty-eight hours of that racket? I made sure to check all of the closets for strangers before we unpacked.

So when it happened again—and even jiggling the button didn’t help—I decided to do something decisive. I took the covering off the box in the upstairs hall and saw two wires crooked at each end and hooked together. When I reached up and released these, the buzzing, blessedly, ceased. If I said I looked down and saw my cat remove her front paws from her ears, you’d have to forgive me for tending to romanticize things. It really was a great relief, though. I bent the wires away from each other and snapped the cover back.

Now when someone rings our doorbell, we hear nothing. They stand alone outside our door wondering—switcheroo—if anyone’s inside. After a few minutes, most of them just walk away.


So, tell me how electricity works.


There’s a big plant somewhere that’s powered either by coal or nuclear energy—sometimes it’s hydroelectric—and it turns these big things around. And something about turning those around makes electricity happen, and then it goes through all these really big wires and comes to your house and it’s in the outlet. I really don’t know that much about it, to be honest.

Electricity was supposedly discovered by Benjamin Franklin and his kite. Everyone knows that story. Personally I’ve never believed it. There’s got to be a lot more to it than that. Before [End Page 79] him there were just candles and lanterns, and the night was a dangerous place filled with...


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