Years ago, as a much younger man, I worked for a short time on a fishing boat off the Cape. The job was mainly hauling nets and pouring the catch into holds and cleaning the decks. But this was near the whale routes, so every once in a while, when the sea was quiet, I could feel something great and close — but always hidden beneath the surface.
The waves would shudder slightly, and though I could never see it clearly, there was the feeling of a presence larger and closer than it should be. Powerful but hidden. Terrible and beautiful at once.
Sometimes if I looked at just the right moment I could see its shadow. And every once in a great while the shadow would come crashing through the surface — visible for just an instant before being pulled back below.
When I was growing up, my folks had a house near the transformer that was the main electrical line into town. It was a large steel tower draped with thick cables. Most of the time it was silent, just a presence. But if you listened closely you could hear a hum. Some nights, though, I could hear a surge, the electricity, I suppose, much stronger than the weaker wire that was forced to carry it.
And when the demand from the town for light and for heat was too great, the wires would overload. They would hum and moan and the tower would begin to shake. Sometimes it even rained down a shower of sparks.
I would stand at my bedroom window, just a young boy afraid in the dark.
Those nights my father would come into my room, put his hand on my shoulder and say, “Don’t worry. Worry is praying in the wrong direction. It’s just the town … calling out for higher power.”
My father lost his job when I was 16. He found a new one a thousand miles away, but I decided that I didn’t want to move so I ended up living on my own, a kind of runaway.
I got a job — and then another — and then one on the weekends.
That year I met Ray.
Ray was an Irish kid, big heart, drove a souped-up GTO muscle car. He had a deep laugh, the kind that was always trying a little too hard to hear itself, like some part of him was hungry for every scrap of hope and joy he could wrestle free from himself.
Ray’s father was a drunk. Worse, he was a bad drunk. That is, he would drink just enough all week not to get fired but then would really get tuned up all weekend long.
Bad drunks always want to fight. They figure, rightly, that life is unfair — and all they want is to find a way to reach out and somehow hit it.
Like they could beat some fairness into it. Like they could somehow change its mind.
Ray’s father was forever swinging away at life on the weekends. This usually meant putting a load on and getting into a fight at a bar, getting his ass kicked, and then coming home loaded with Bushmills and rage.
This, of course, left only his teenage son to batter.
So trying to punish life, he ended up hitting his only son until he himself became the very unfairness he was trying to beat away.
Each weekend Ray pleaded for the old man — whom he loved — to stop … which was like asking for the world not to spin.
Ray would come to school Mondays, blackened eyes, bruised up, broken jaw wired shut once. He told me that every Monday morning like clockwork he would find his old man in some dark closet of shame on his knees, hands shaking, praying.
Beating up the last person he could reach. Himself.
Always begging for the very mercy he could not find in his own heart. Always pleading those dawns over and over for higher power.
So Ray made himself into a hard guy. What choice did he have? He became the echo of the old man’s punches. And in due time started getting into fights on the street. Got arrested a couple times.
The crime wasn’t his, though. Not really. That was like blaming the echo for the holler.
One night Ray picked me up to go across the state line to buy beer. The back way was full of twisted country roads, the kind that pivot and spin for no purpose, like they were designed by a surveyor driven mad from grief.
We both knew those roads in our sleep, but this night Ray was going way too fast.
I asked him to slow down. But he just stared ahead like he was trying to see something out beyond the reach of the lights.
Then he steadily pushed it up to 40 — 50 — 60 miles an hour.
He turned and looked at me hard like he was trying to say something for which the words had not yet been invented.
And then he switched off the headlights.
I was terrified. He was twisting the wheel back and forth as we hurtled along, feeling our way along that dark unseeable country road.
For about 30 seconds — half a mile or so — all I could see was the shadow of the trees rushing by, calling out for my future to wrap itself around them.
Ray finally dropped to 30 and flipped on the lights. I remember I was trembling. We rode along in silence for a moment, then in a low voice he whispered, “That’s what it feels like … all the time … to be me.”
He dropped me where I was living. But I didn’t go in. Instead I walked the mile back to where my folks used to live near the wires and the tower.
That night I remember the transformer was overloaded. The hum rose like a plea and the wires moaned once more under the weight of the demand. Too many people, I suppose, in the dark, calling out for heat and for light.
I remember the wires finally shuddered, like that was too much to ask. Then a shower of sparks cascaded down. And then silence.
The blackout covered most of the town, including Ray’s house.
His father sat alone in the dark for an hour, then angry once more, stumbled into the basement. He started beating on the circuit box with a screwdriver just as the power surged.
They found him unconscious, fingernails burnt black from the charge. And though the doctors could never find a reason, he didn’t speak for a year. They kept him in the hospital for a couple weeks and because of that he lost his job. The bank took the house and Ray ended up moving in with his aunt, a small bright woman with an incandescent spirit. And the old man became one of the shadows on the streets, a silhouette cloaked in the darkness of his own making.
Ray became a cop. He used to tell me, “They don’t call it police ‘force’ for nothing.”
He found a way to turn the echo of those beatings into a calling.
Every time he answered a 911 call — a wife being beaten, a kid abused, whatever — it was like he himself had become the answer. An imperfect reply to a call for higher power. He became, like all of us, a flawed wire trying to deliver a current stronger than it was ever meant to bear.
I suppose his father’s pleas were finally heard. The terror of those beatings was slowly turned inside out … into mercy … both for and then eventually from his son. But sometimes even the speed of light is too slow. Ray died way too young, of cancer. A soul can live too close for too long to the wires. Overloaded, I suppose.
There’s just so much demand, or as my father would say, so many calling out for higher power.
But that was many years ago and now I live far from that town.
And now some nights when I look at whatever woman has gotten near to me, it makes me think of those power lines. And sometimes I can hear in her the whisper of a higher power.
Some nights I can even feel it stirring in me, like the shadow of something great and unseeable and far beneath the surface.
Last week late at night I was alone on the interstate where it’s straight and flat and predictable. I pushed it up — 70 — 80 — 100 miles an hour, until the chassis and the wires began to rattle and moan. And then I cut off the lights.
I thought for a moment I knew what it felt like to be a whale — hidden from the world — just a shadow. Full of something terrible and beautiful and far beneath the surface rushing along through the dark.
And I wondered why even in the daylight it feels sometimes like a shadowed world is rushing by, calling out for my future to wrap itself around. A world I can only feel and never quite can see.
But worry is praying in the wrong direction.
So some nights I get on my knees in the darkness and search for words that have not yet been invented. Calling out for higher power.
And sometimes when I hold her tight I can feel the rise and fall of her breath — and far beyond my reach, in each of us I suppose — something like a current, trying to meet the demand of all those dark and distant places in us all.
Trying to answer.
With heat and with light.
Featured image: Shutterstock.com
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