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TERRY ENGEL

AFTERGLOW

My mother called the plant in Georgia where I worked to tell me that my father had been killed in a powerline accident, an event she had predicted for years. She tried to explain what happened in a very matter of fact voice, something about induced voltage and faulty safety grounds, but I couldn't draw an accurate picture from what she said. She talked as if all her worry had been vindicated, which somehow made my father's death less of a surprise. I left for Tennessee right away.

I drove all afternoon and got to the funeral home just before the evening visitation. My mother sat in the chapel with her sister, my father's brothers Lester and Albert, and their wives. Mother looked to be in good shape. She wore a nice dress and had her hair fixed. As we hugged I felt how tiny she was, thin shoulders, my hand almost covering her whole back. I breathed hair spray. Lester put one arm across my shoulder and we shook hands.

"Good to see you, Gerald. You still down in Georgia?"

"Yes sir," I said. Lester smelled of whiskey. He was a short powerful man with dark hair going gray. He always looked angry to me, and I remembered how I had been afraid of him when I was a kid. Something I hadn't quite gotten over.

Albert moved in and took my other hand. He was short and round, with a red face. His eyes jumped behind his glasses and he was still crying a little.

"I'm glad you're here, Gerald," my mother said. "I wanted you to spend a few moments with your father before the public visitation."

The director introduced himself and led my mother, Lester, Albert and me through double doors into a back room. My father's face was made up so that he looked like something unreal, a badly done wax impression. I'd seen the work at other funerals and half expected it, but seeing my father that way was a disappointment. I'd expected more from him. He was dressed in the suit I'd only seen him wear a couple of times. His hair was combed back and oiled, his forehead pale above the tan of his face. One hand was folded over the other, but I could still see the black, burned skin of his bottom hand.

"Don't he look nice, Gerald? They did a good job."

Everyone was quiet for a few minutes, waiting for me to say something, until Lester leaned in and whispered: "I climbed up and cut him off the pole, Gerald. Tommy would've wanted that."

"Yes, Gerald," my mother said. "Lester finished the job for your father."

"Thank you," I said.

The service was at eleven o'clock the next morning, but relatives and men who'd worked with my father began showing up at the house around nine. I sat in the kitchen and looked out the window, watching cars and trucks pull in and park in the front yard. My uncles and older cousins sat on car hoods while they waited on time to go to church. My aunts and other women I didn't know worked on lunch in the kitchen, moving quietly around my mother and me, guiding us back to the table whenever we tried to help.

After a while I asked my mother if she needed anything and she said no. I went out the back door and walked around to the front porch steps. It was a sunny fall morning, warm. The last of the trees along the river were blazing orange and yellow, littering the ground. The river rippled beyond gaps in the trees. The men in the front yard were telling stories about my father. All of my cousins and the other men had worked for Valley Power at one time or another. They fell quiet when I sat down on the porch steps.

Lester wore a stiff black suit with a bolo tie. He had a pint flask of whiskey and was sharing it with his brother and son and nephews. He nodded at me, said "Gerald," and held the flask toward me, but I shook my head.

A man I didn't know opened his trunk and passed out cans of beer. He handed one to me and introduced himself as Lee, said he'd worked with my father almost ten years.

We drank our beer and some of the men smoked. The younger kids were playing football around the side of the house, yelling and laughing. The ball landed close to Lester. He picked it up and threw a perfect spiral.

"You kids move to the back yard," he yelled. "And you better not get dirty. This is a funeral."

Albert looked at me and punched Lester in the ribs. Lester mumbled "sorry" and squatted. He opened a pocket knife and scratched some lines in the dirt.

"How old was Tommy?" Lee asked.

"Fiftytwo," Albert said.

"Goddamn," Lee said. Everyone nodded, looked at their drinks.

Lee shook his head. "Both of my brothers died when they were fifty. Billy had gotten off work early and was bushhogging the side of the road he lived on. Dropped the tractor wheel into a culvert and it rolled on him, pinned him underneath the steering wheel. The other one had cancer."

Lee tossed an empty can into the trunk and opened another. "I'm fortynine. All I know is I'm not leaving the goddamn house after my birthday."

"That's the worst thing you can do," Lester said.

"I don't know," Lee said. "Much as I hate thinking about the old lady, I'd hate to see her spend that insurance without me."

"You won't miss money in heaven," Albert said.

"The last heaven he saw was on the triple-X channel in Murfreesboro," Lester said. Everyone laughed.

"We had some heaven up in Peoria, didn't we Lester?" Albert said.

Lester got a look on his face like he was actually having a pleasant memory. He sat beside me on the steps and gripped me just above the knee, hard enough to make me wince.

"This should interest you, Gerald. It's about your daddy."

The windburned cracks in the corner of Lester's eyes moved as he talked.

"The first job we ever worked was in Illinois. The wind blew so hard that no one would turn loose of the structure to work, except your dad. He tied himself to a piece of steel with bull rope.

"I cussed that bastard for two days," Lester said. "We'd met two sisters in Peoria dying to give it up, and the last place I wanted to be was tied to a piece of steel."

"I still say he was afraid of those girls," Albert said, "or he would've come off the structure. Hell, Tommy couldn't have been more than sixteen or seventeen."

Lester cut his eyes at me. "That was before he knew your mother, of course."

I nodded.

"One day last year your dad was adjusting the shoe on the conductor wire," Albert said to me. "He hung upside down from the steel in his safety belt, drunk as Katie Brown, got so dizzy he couldn't pull himself back up."

Albert moved his big shoulders inside his coat. His face was flushed.

"He kept yelling: 'would someone please tell me how the fuck I got up here in the first place?' I finally swung the crane around and lowered him down on the hook."

My mother and the other women walked onto the porch. My mother walked past Lester without saying a word, but her look would have frozen water. She climbed into the passenger seat of her car and waited for me to drive. Aunt Mary grabbed Albert by the arm and steered him toward their car, asking: "Couldn't you wait until after the service to start that?"

In the car my mother brushed my bangs to one side, but I moved my hand through my hair, parting it in the middle again. She worked the snap on her purse, opening and closing it.

"Those things they were saying about your father, not all of them are true."

"I don't believe everything I hear, Mama. But enough of it's true."

"Well," she said. "They just worked with him."

The man who preached the funeral described a stranger to me. The preacher told about a day that he'd dropped by our house and found my father alone, reading a Bible at the kitchen table. He said my father was a maverick, a good man despite his inadequacies, who had earned a home in heaven through the grace of God. I felt my eyes watering even though I knew it was all wrong.

I thought instead of the man who took me hunting when I was fourteen. We went to a powerline and he made me climb thirty feet up a tower. I sat on a horizontal piece of steel and hooked my feet under a diagonal brace for balance. My father passed my rifle up on the end of a rope.

"I'm going to that tower on the next hill," he said. "We'll have them in a crossfire."

I watched his orange vest move through the scrub brush and waist high brown grass that grew in the bottom between the two towers. The weather wasn't cold, but the sky was covered over with gray, fast moving clouds. The wires above me crackled and the wind made a lonesome noise blowing through the steel. Looking at the ground made me uneasy. I stared up through the tower, making diamonds and trapezoids and parallelograms. Drifting clouds created the sensation that the tower was moving and the clouds were still. I grew dizzy and looked for my father, finally picking out the dot of his vest as he climbed the next tower.

I saw eight deer that day, two groups of three does each, and two single bucks-a four point and a spike-that crossed the right of way along a creek that ran closer to me than to my father. When I raised the rifle my body shook. I thought about the kick, imagined flying backwards through the tower to the ground. I hugged the leg of the tower with one arm and tried to aim. Holding on to something felt better, but I didn't shoot. I hoped the brush was high enough that my father didn't see the bucks.

It was nearly dark when he came back for me. I watched the splash of orange float down the dark hill like a firefly, appearing for a few seconds and then disappearing. I let down my rifle on the rope and then climbed down carefully, my father reaching up to steady me as I slid the last few feet of the leg where the step bolts had been removed to keep people off the towers.

"See anything?" he asked, handing over the rifle.

"All does." I stepped a few feet away to pee, turning my back on him.

"I thought one of those singles might be a buck." I smelled his cigarette and listened to him exhale. "Too brushy to shoot?"

"I scoped it out," I said, looking over my shoulder. "I couldn't find antlers."

"Well, poor light for scopes anyway." He smiled at me as I walked over. We started out the fire road toward the truck. His cigarette arced in the dark as he swung his arm.

My parents called every week when I went to college to study engineering. I told them I was working hard, putting in hours at the library and on the computer. It was true and they believed me. My father quit school in the eighth grade to farm, barely missed Korea, and then went to the powerlines. My mother finished high school and went to work in a furniture factory. They were proud that I had the chance to go. When I got the job in Georgia my mother told me that she would sleep better at night knowing that I'd never have to climb a pole in a thunderstorm, or sit in a crew truck and talk sports and sex with muddy men. But it was a different kind of work that I did, designing fiber optic cable, and I was never sure how my father looked at that.

After the funeral everyone went back to the house for lunch. The mood was more family reunion than funeral. My cousins played touch football. Albert's son Ronnie, a fourth year apprentice lineman, smoked as he played, holding a cigarette in his mouth each down to free his hands.

When I went to the porch the sun was low, deepening the color of the changing leaves. The house was quiet, like a Thanksgiving afternoon when everyone looks for a bed to sleep off dinner. Lester was slouched in the glider, moving it slowly with one foot, a brown grocery sack on his lap.

"Gerald. Been looking for you. Let's go for a ride."

We climbed into his company truck and didn't say anything as he drove. The pickup floated over the gravel, using the whole road, straying too close to the ditches. The seat and floorboard were littered with tools, empty cigarette packs and beer cans, an old carburetor.

Lester opened the sack between us and pulled out my father's hard hat. The white plastic was scuffed and dirty. "VPC 4547" was stenciled over the bill and there was writing on it.

"The whole crew signed it. Thought you might like to keep it."

I turned the hat over in my hands, trying to read the signatures. Someone named Stump had traced a sawed off tree stump under his name. Lester handed me nine onehundred dollar bills.

"Everyone chipped in," he said. "There'll be more coming when we hear from the other crews."

"Why not flowers?" I dropped the crisp bills in the hard hat and placed it on the seat between us.

"Give that to your mother. She won't take it from me."

"What's the deal between you two?"

Lester took out his flask, but it was empty. He put it back in his pocket.

"I have to tell you, Gerald, Tommy was as drunk as I'd ever seen. I tried to make him sleep it off in the truck but he wouldn't listen. You know how he was."

Lester ground the truck to a stop, spraying gravel. The engine jerked and died. He turned on the dome light and rolled up his left sleeve. He pointed to a wine colored scar on his forearm, erupted flesh the size of a silver dollar that had healed over long ago.

"I got into some static once. I gripped the wire and it went through my hand, came out here. Tommy wasn't that lucky, Gerald. It went all the way through his body, went to ground through his hooks, blew the soles of both boots off. We couldn't show you that at the funeral home."

"I didn't want to see it."

Lester looked at me, his face blank, uncomprehending. He started the truck up and idled down the road.

"There could be trouble over the insurance," Lester said. "Tommy went up before we got the safety grounds on either side of him. I told him about the induced voltage but he wouldn't listen."

I didn't say anything. I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes again. I reached up and turned the dome light off.

"I falsified my accident report. We went back and put up a worn out ground before the inspectors could get out there, so I think they're with us on this. Hell, they don't have a clue. We'll take good care of your mother."

"I'll take care of my mother, Lester. You just keep on covering your ass. I'll take care of her."

Lester stopped the truck again, stared hard at me.

"I'm not going to let the company fuck a man out of twentytwo years of good work," he said.

"Why did you let him keep going up there, Lester? You knew he couldn't handle the work anymore." I cried for real and couldn't help it. I wanted Lester to turn the truck around and go home. "You were his foreman for God's sake."

Lester didn't say anything for a minute. He rocked the steering wheel back and forth, testing the play, then he said: "I'm going to show you something, boy, something I don't want you to ever forget. Go ahead and cry if you need to. It don't bother me none."

He drove to the end of the gravel and turned onto the blacktop. We rode a few miles in silence, winding up into the hills. I rolled my window down and let the air rush in. It smelled like mint. Lester stopped outside a cinder block bar called Snuffy's and told me to wait. It was full dark and the neon beer signs glowed through the barred windows. He waved at someone in the parking lot as he came back with a pint of Jim Beam and a sixpack. He opened the pint and took a drink, then passed the bottle to me.

"Have some. It'll make you feel better."

I passed on the whiskey and took a beer instead. Lester got back on the blacktop. The beer was cold and hard to choke down past the lump in my throat, but it got better. After a while he turned off on another gravel road and then onto a muddy fire road. Lester shifted into low range and we bounced through the ruts at a crawl.

The road paralleled a powerline right of way. We stopped on a bluff beside a thirty foot wood pole. Twohundred feet below the town of Crawford lay nestled between the hills and the Tennessee River. The town was three blocks long, laid out in straight lines of house lights that sparkled against the black velvet ground. A pair of car headlights barely slowed as it entered the town limits. The red and green running lights of a barge moved down the river.

"Looks peaceful, don't it?" Lester said. He shut off the engine, took a long drink from the bottle. "There wasn't shit here until me and Tommy and Albert strung a line off this bluff in 1962. Once they got cheap electricity that fertilizer mill started up over there. Crawford tripled in size overnight."

He waved his arm but the mill was shut down for the night and was only lighted by a few security lights. Lester plugged a spotlight into the cigarette lighter and handed it to me.

"Do me a favor," he said. "When I tell you turn this on the top of that pole over there. "

I pushed the switch and flooded the cab with light and turned it off.

Lester went to the back of the truck and strapped on his climbing hooks and tool belt. I opened the truck door and watched. He leaned an eight foot orange stick with a hook on one end against the pole. "That's a hot stick," he said. "Good for eightythousand volts." Then he showed me a long piece of wire coated in yellow insulation with matching clamps at both ends. "This other thing is a safety ground. It's what would have saved your father's life."

Lester strapped his safety belt around the pole and started up, his hooks clanking as he stepped into the wood, the hot stick hanging from his belt and banging against his legs. Somewhere near the top I heard more banging. After a few minutes Lester yelled: "Hit me with that spot."

Lester stood a few feet below the wire. He attached one end of the safety ground to the ground wire running down the pole and the other to the end of the hot stick. He measured the distance to the wire, looked down at his feet.

"Okay. Turn it off."

Everything went dark. All I could see was the afterglow from the spotlight burned into my retinas. Lester lit a cigarette at the top of the pole.

"Got your night vision back yet, Gerald?" he yelled.

"Go ahead."

The cigarette fell in an orange trace. Bluegreen fire flashed at the top of the pole with a simultaneous explosion, then sizzled down the side of the pole and disappeared into the ground, starting a small grass fire. The lights of Crawford dimmed once, then disappeared. The valley was so dark that I couldn't tell where the river ended and the land began.

"Wake up and call the power company you bastards," Lester yelled. "No more Johnny Carson, no more microwave popcorn. Say hello to the fucking stone age."

I walked over and stamped out the burning grass at the bottom of the pole. Lester clanked to the ground, shaking the pole as he descended. He dropped the scorched, smoking safety at my feet and went to the truck, leaned in the window for the six pack, and sat on the hood of the truck still wearing his tools.

I climbed up beside him and took another beer. "What about them?" I asked, motioning toward the town.

"The boys at the substation will warm up the line after a few minutes, see if it goes out again."

We sat there for a few minutes listening to the insect sounds in the grass. An owl screamed somewhere off in the woods.

"You ought to come down sometime and let me show you the plant where I work, Lester. We make a lot of cable for Valley Power."

"Yeah, I know all about that," Lester said. He opened another beer and handed me one.

"Was my daddy disappointed when I didn't go on the powerlines?" I asked.

Lester didn't look at me. He leaned forward with his arms across his knees and held his beer with both hands.

"Tommy was disappointed by a lot of things. I'd say you weren't one of them."

I leaned forward like Lester and smiled. "I was never sure," I said.

"My brother Albert hurt his back on this job and couldn't climb anymore. The company tried to fuck him out of his disability and lay him off. Me and Tommy went to the company president one night and told him that if he didn't take care of our brother we'd burn every piece of equipment Valley Power owned-chop down every goddamn pole and structure we ever stuck in the ground for them. And they took care of Albert too, let him operate the crane."

I drank the rest of my beer and set the can on the hood, but it fell to the ground. I hopped off the truck and picked it up, turned back toward Lester.

"Like I said, I was never sure." I started to go on, but Lester poked me in the side with his elbow and I stopped.

"Listen," he said. The wires over our head snapped and popped. "They're warming it back up." The lights in the town came on dim and then slowly burned up to full power. Lester beamed at me, his smile crooked and half drunk.

Copyright 1995 Blip Magazine Archive

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