Memory - to quote this guy - is tricksy. When I first wrote this story twenty-five years ago, I could've sworn something like this had just happened in or around my hometown. I rewrote it five years later, and the memory of the supposed event had faded, replaced with the story below. Now, looking on it twenty years past that, I couldn't tell you what's real and what's make-believe. But to quote the last line,"... isn't it, after all, only the Story that counts?" So here it is, the same tale I wrote for a college class two decades ago when I understood more, retyped but unedited by my much older, know-nothing self.
When I was eight years old, I watched a man die.
I was playing in the town square, running up and down the rickety bleachers that only got any real use during the town’s annual homecoming festival, being used as resting places for fat middle-aged women and their equally fat husbands as they thrilled to the antics of the local square-dancing club. But it was too late in the year for such festivities, and the bleachers sat empty for my enjoyment. Mom was across the road, in the Main Street Pharmacy, picking up one of her many prescriptions. She only let me play in the square because she could watch me through the large paned window of the pharmacy, where she sat, sipping a vanilla Coke while she waited for her prescription to be filled.
I did everything I could to ignore the fact that she was watching me, everything from spitting on the sidewalk (she thought spitting was low-class) to climbing the poorly pruned trees, which was against town square rules. Mom would yell out of the pharmacy window, Damn it, Oscar, stop that! or You know I told you not to do that in public! I paid attention the first few times, but quickly lost respect for her parental authority and went about my business. After all, she was across the street. I was free to do as I pleased.
There was a boom truck parked on the south side of the square. It read Jackson Verger, Building Maintenance and Revocation in blocky letters on the side. The paint job was faded and the back fender was badly rusted. It was missing three out of four of its hubcaps and one tire looked like it was on the verge of becoming flat. Its extension ladder was raised, and in the bucket at the end sat an old man with white hair. He was busy cramping the peeling paint off of the intricate stonework that framed the very top of the Mallory Opera House. It had sat empty since the 1950’s but the town was planning to renovate it and use it for a community theater of some sorts. The town council dropped the whole plan for reopening the opera house after what happened to Jackson Verger.
The old man stopped scraping the stonework and the ladder began a slow descent. This was what made me stop my abuse of the aged bleachers. I watched in awe as he began lowering himself from so high it seemed to me as if he was crawling his way back down from heaven. As I watched him come down, I thought that I might like to take a ride on that ladder all the way up, up as far as it would reach and then stand in that bucket and look down on everyone and everything below me. If I could only spit from that high, it would make a nice big splat on the sidewalk. Or someone’s head.
The ladder snapped back into place with a small screech. The man climbed out of the bucket and swiftly came down the ladder. As he turned in my direction, I saw that he wasn’t really old at all. His hair, which was the only thing visible from up high, was so blonde that it looked white in the glittering sunlight. His face was very smooth and only crinkled up when he smiled at me. I was turned around sitting on the second highest row, with my arms rested on the top row of the bleachers, watching him. He waved and called out to me but a car passed in front of us at that moment and what he said to me was lost. I just nodded and waved back as he hopped out of the truck bed and walked around to the driver’s side of the cab. He disappeared inside. The engine growled to life as he started the truck and backed up towards me. He swung the truck wide and ran his back tire up onto the sidewalk.
What happened after this was called a tragedy by the town newspaper and everyone else who couldn’t think of anything better to say about it. There was a loud crackling and hissing sound as Jackson Verger’s tire crossed the sidewalk. Sparks flew from above, where the boom truck’s ladder got caught up in the low-hanging telephone wires. A shot of electricity sizzled down the ladder to the truck itself, causing the engine to abruptly quit.
But everything else came to life, including Jackson Verger. The back of the truck became electrified, and so did he. His eyes grew grotesquely wide and then rolled back in his head. His teeth clenched together and his lips curled back. He shook from the voltage, his body flopping and jerking like a catfish out of water. Within seconds, his shiny hair had caught on fire. I covered my nose to block out that smell, but I could not stop looking.
I vaguely remember people crowding out of the businesses around the square, stopping their midmorning work to come and watch Jackson Verger die. Jim McLean, the owner of McLean’s hardware store and the only man my mother would trust with her hardware needs, ran up to the boom truck and tried to pull him free. As soon as he touched the hot metal of the door handle, he was thrown back several feet, but the sheer force of the electricity, towards me. The shock turned his hair white, whiter than Jackosn Verger’s. Later, when asked about his act of heroism, Jim McLean looked bewildered and said But I was in the store the whole time. I didn’t see anything. He didn’t even remember that his hair had been black as shoe polish the day before.
Jackson Verger was burning steadily by the time my mother reached me. She hugged me close to her, my face buried in her soft belly so that I couldn’t see anything. But I could smell everything. The smell was a burning in my nose, more acrid than smoldering leaves, more powerful than my mother’s too-sweet woman scent.
It took fifteen minutes for the electric company to arrive and shut off the power. But I didn’t learn this until later because we were already in the car and headed towards home when they stopped it. The loud hiss of the electricity, like an angry snake, was still humming in my ears. The smell of fire and burning that clung to my clothes was impossible to ignore in the confines of the car. My mother was quiet, unnaturally so. Maybe she was thinking about the smell too, but I couldn’t be sure. I was trying to understand what Jackson Verger had shouted at me from across the road, the snippet of conversation that had been lost in the sound of the passing car.
It was late that night, underneath the comfort of my Superman blanket that I thought I knew what Jackson Verger’s last words on this earth were.
What a view! he said as he smiled at me, his eyes crinkling at the corners and his hair so bright that it was on fire underneath the autumn sun.
(This is the story that I always tell, even to this day, because isn’t it, after all, only the Story that counts?)