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Scott Wolven

Ball Lightning Reported In The Northeast Kingdom

Two days into a full-on ice storm, I drove the forty-five miles north and east from Burlington to Red Green's house in Newport, Vermont. All along the way, the woods were a winter war zone. Trees splintered from the weight of the ice, scattering limbs and trunks on the frozen snow. Blue sparks arched out of severed high-tension wires, onto the icy blacktop. Temperature shifted by the minute, changing from rain to snow to ice, back to rain. My mind mirrored the storm, fierce addiction raging, beating my brain with baseball-sized hailstones of chemical need. I thought about turning around, thought about getting high at Red's and kept going. The drive, normally fifty-five synapse-screaming minutes in good weather with a crystal meth tailwind, took six hours.

For the past four years - really since late 1993 - I made the drive from Burlington to Newport twice a week. A friend of a friend, that worst of all bridges, hooked me up with Red. I had just started working at the medical waste facility in South Burlington. Red suggested he might be able to salvage some pharmaceutical-quality drugs from the plastic biohazard containers I stuffed into the industrial autoclave every night. Twice a week, I made sure two full waste containers found their way into the back of my truck. Red was always happy and so was I - four containers a week paid for all my drugs. Back then, it was mostly a lot of hash and a little heroin, with the occasional jolt of some high-octane crank to make sure I functioned during the day. All with as much beer as I could swallow for a chaser. Red stuck to harder stuff than that. Angel dust and liquid cocaine, mixed with dental anesthesia. He was a tweak freak too, and then he'd apply the heroin brakes for a week. The containers I brought would sometimes yield a gold nugget - a half-used bag of morphine or Haldol drip, a pound of bright colored, professional-strength get-high chiclets. Red had connections and customers for all of it. I never really knew where he got his other stuff. Anybody with crystal meth usually has biker friends, but I never saw any bikers at Red's. Twice weekly, I'd get high at his house, then take the rest of my new stash back to Burlington. Four years of this arrangement had bumped me up to angel dust and meth, until I needed heroin to dampen the evil hum that became my internal theme music.

The storm peaked as I reached the outskirts of Newport, ice pellets machine-gunning the truck's windshield under huge irregular booms of thunder. Red Green's house was on the edge of Lake Memphremagog, the inland sea of the Northeast Kingdom, that region made up of northern Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and parts of Canada. I followed the old shore road around the giant frozen lake until I was in front of his house. It was a one-level, white shack, with a concrete block for a front step and pink insulation stuffed inside the front window. As I got out of the truck, I pulled up the collar of my barn jacket against the ice pellets and made a dash for the back door, which faced the lake. I could smell wood smoke. Thunder boomed and lightning struck the lake a hundred yards from the back porch. Right where the lightning struck, I saw three balls of lightning. The balls rose off the ice and traveled about thirty feet, each one hissing, until they dissipated into nothing. Just the sight-echo of three bright spots, which stayed on my eyes. I opened the back porch door.

Red Green was lying on the couch wearing a dirty flannel shirt and a pair of jeans, with logger's boots. He had red hair and a thin face, the type of face you get from too many cigarettes and drugs and not enough food. The fireplace was going full blast, the flames providing the only light in the room. As close to the fire as he could get without being burned was a long, brown, shorthaired dog. He was a pretty big dog, probably close to a hundred pounds. He had a blanket over his butt and he was shaking, his collar and tags jingling. The dog was a new addition since my last visit. I nodded at Red and he pointed to the table on my left. I pulled a chair out and sat down and smoked a fair amount of hash and angel dust before I turned to speak to him.

"What's wrong with your dog?" I asked.

"He can't stand the cold, and thunder makes him nervous," Red answered. We both looked at the dog, still shaking under the blanket close to the fire.

"What kind of dog is he?" I wondered.

"Rhodesian ridgeback," Red said.

I shook my head. "I never heard of that."

Red pointed to the floor and I noticed a stack of books, all with identical blue bindings. "Look it up. I got some encyclopedias the other day. A guy knocked on the front door and said he was selling them. I got him high and he gave me a set."

I looked at Red. "He was really selling encyclopedias door-to-door out here, in this weather?"

Red shook his head. "He wasn't selling encyclopedias door-to-door. He was selling these encyclopedias; this is the only set he had. He just bought them for his wife and now she ran off to Florida, so he wanted to get rid of them. He's local, I've seen him before - you'd know him if you saw him. He's got big bucked teeth. I think his name is Dixon."

I moved to the floor and looked at the encyclopedias. I pulled out the letter "R" and leafed through it. Under the entry "Rhodesian ridgeback," there was a picture of Red's dog.

"What does it say?" Red asked.

"Those dogs were bred to hunt lions. Some people call them The Lion Dog. They have a ridge of fur on their back." I crawled over toward the fire and examined the dog's back. A sharp line of short fur, pointing opposite the rest of his coat, rode directly on the dog's backbone. I read further in the encyclopedia. "It says that Rhodesia doesn't exist anymore. It calls it "the former Rhodesia."

Red thought for a moment. "That's true about a lot of things," he said. He leaned forward and snorted some white-ish powder off the coffee table in front of him.

I looked at the "R" volume closely. Encyclopedia International was engraved on the front cover, in cheap gold script. Scripted in the middle of the spine was the letter "R." At the top of the spine, written in gold, was the year 1975. "These are old," I said. "These aren't new. They're from 1975 - they're no good."

Red picked up a beer bottle from the coffee table, took a long drink, and set it back down among the other empty bottles. He shook his head. "What difference does that make, as long as they're all there? How can they be no good?"

"They aren't accurate. The information is old and anything that happened after seventy-five is missing." I crawled back over to the pile of encyclopedias and put "R" back on top.

"Stuff doesn't change that much," said Red. "Read me something that's changed. Start at the beginning, find "A," and read me something that's changed a lot." He snorted more powder off the coffee table.

I found "A" and opened to the first page of text. "Okay. Here's something that's changed a lot." The fire growled as it ate the wood and air.

"Read it to me." Outside, the storm wailed.

I cleared my throat. "It's information about Alcoholics Anonymous, but they have this side story, a chapter out of a book called Behind The Door Of Delusion. It was written in 1932 by an author who calls himself Inmate Ward Eight. It's all about the author being locked up in the Eastern Oklahoma Hospital For The Insane, due to his alcoholism. He had been a successful businessman, until drinking caught up with him."

Red looked at me. "How has that changed? People still do that. I know people that have gone to the hospital for drinking."

"No, alcoholism treatment has changed a lot. Let me read this to you. It says '...and the doctors would threaten the inmates with the carbolic acid wash if they could not stop drinking. Saltpeter was mixed in with all our food, to prevent us from having strong emotions.' That's from the dark ages."

Red shrugged. "They do the same thing today, but with different drugs." Then he nodded. "Okay, that's a change, they don't talk about modern drugs. But that's not a big change. They still put alkies in the bug house."

I continued to read. "My first day on Ward Eight, I was taken to the hose room. The doctors chained me to the wall naked and shot me with a fire hose for what seemed like hours. The freezing water caused me to develop pneumonia, which took me a month to recover from. After I recovered from my pneumonia, I received what the doctors called temperate electric shock therapy. The electricity was delivered to my skull through wires taped to both of my temples. The shocks caused me to clench my jaw, breaking my own back teeth. After I broke my teeth, I was allowed to bite down on a thick raw steak, which was then removed from my mouth once the shocks had been administered." I looked over at Red. "This treatment continued daily for seven months."

Red nodded. "Okay, that's pretty bad. But I'm telling you, even today, if they get you into one of those nut houses, you're in for it." He took a drink of beer. "Those posh rehabs you see on TV are for movie stars. Don't kid yourself - scum like us get sent to lock-down joints."

I kept reading. "Due to the electric shocks, I no longer remembered my own mother and father. My father died shortly after my release and this triggered two terrible incidents. The night before the funeral I slept in my old room on the farm. A dangerous storm came up from Texas and swept across Oklahoma, the worst lightning and thunder the county had ever seen. But the shocks had removed portions of my learning; even though my father had explained thunder to me as a boy, I had no recollection of it. I ended up under my bed, urinating. The next day, in the middle of the funeral, I had the distinct impression that I didn't belong there, that I held no relationship to the deceased. Yet my father and I had been on good terms up until alcohol called for my committal. Before the service ended, I stood up and started shouting that everyone there smelled of barley liquor and where was my good father. Family members restrained me and I was returned, briefly, to the asylum. I was so embarrassed by my own behavior that I wanted to die for a time. Even though I gave up alcohol, I was still drunk. Gradually, it passed and I wanted to live. It took two terrible incidents to make me want to live."

Red nodded. "Okay, that doesn't sound so good. When I'm high I'm high, but when I'm not, I'm not. The shit doesn't carry over from one day to the next unless I get high again." He listened to the storm. "At least I've got a full set. He looked over at me. "Find "F," and look up faro."

I came up with "F." "What's faro?"

"An old-time card game." He drank some beer.

I found faro. "Here it is. It says 'card game played with an ordinary fifty-two card deck, by any number of persons, for the sole purpose of gambling'." A brief set of rules followed.

"A new encyclopedia wouldn't have that. That's an old-time game." He nodded. "My mother used to talk about faro. See, that's worth something right there."

I shook my head. "But important stuff is missing." I leafed through "F." The only Ford listed was Henry. "It doesn't even have President Ford."

Red sniffed more powder off the coffee table. "What do I care about him? He's dead."

"No he isn't. See, that's what I mean, stuff is missing." We sat silent. I got up and took some more dust. The dog was still shaking.

"As long as I've got a full set, that's all I care about," Red said.

I decided to tell him about the ball lightning. "Hey, know what I saw coming in here?"

Red shook his head. "No, what?"

"Ball lightning," I said.

"What's that?"

I crawled back over to the encyclopedias. "I'll look it up. My father used to talk to me about it, how lightning can travel in a ball if the weather is right." The "B" volume didn't have an entry for ball lightning.

"Try weather," Red suggested.

"I'll try meteorology," I said. I started to go through "M."

Red sipped a beer."What day is it?" he asked.

"I don't know," I said.

"I think it's my mother's birthday."

I nodded. "You should call her."

"I tried before, but the phones are out," he responded.

"Where does your mom live?" I asked.

"She used to live in Reno. She likes to gamble," he said. " But I think she moved to Toronto. I should go visit her."

"You could wish her happy birthday," I said.

"How much does a ticket to Toronto cost?" he asked.

"I'll look it up," I said and pawed through the encyclopedias. "T" was missing. "Red, "T's" missing."

"That guy was such an asshole. I fucking said to him, Are they all there and he said Oh, Yeah, all the letters. What a bastard!" Red got off the couch and started to pace around. "You better go. Leave. Lately, when I start to come down, shit gets ugly. I'll catch you later."

"But the storm...," I started.

"I DON"T GIVE A FUCKING DAMNHELL ABOUT THE STORM!" His words slammed around. "YOU'RE LEAVING. NOW!"

I got off the floor and walked out the back door. It was raining a little, with thunder rumbling in the distance. Red followed me. I heard him mumble "fucking Dixon" as he reached the porch.

"Hey," he said. "Help me with the snowmobile. I can drive to see my mother."

Parked next to the house was a snowmobile. I took the ice scraper out of my truck and started smacking the ice off the mobile's seat. Red came back with a kitchen knife and knocked most of the ice off the dashboard. He sat on the seat and turned the key. The engine sputtered and coughed, then stayed running. The headlight came on. Red whooped.

"Fucking shit works!" he said. He pointed straight ahead, over the icy lake. "That's Canada, right?"

I nodded and mouthed "yes" over the now-roaring engine.

"Here I go," he said. "The former Red Green." He put his hands on the steering controls and gunned the throttle. The snowmobile moved forward, then gained speed toward the lake, leaving a choppy trail from its single belt track. Red flew, out over the ice, faster, until he was eighty yards off shore. The snowmobile broke through the frozen surface and the machine disappeared into the water, taking Red down with it. I stared at where he'd been. A faint glow from the snowmobile's taillights filtered up through the ice, then faded. I knelt on the frozen snow, as my high started to really kick in. I saw the ridgeback standing on the back porch. The dog opened its mouth to bark, but what came out was my voice, screaming.



I woke up face down in the snow, covered with a thick layer of ice. The trail of the snowmobile led out onto the lake, and abruptly stopped near a newly frozen patch. The rest of the icy surface was intact. I shook myself off and climbed into my truck. The ridgeback came out of the house when the engine turned over. I opened the passenger's door and he hopped in, shaking from the cold. And I drove back to Burlington. The road was the same going in as it had been coming out, except that I was suddenly alive, with a desire to stay that way. I never actually saw ball lightning again, although I know it occurs from time-to-time. My father told me so. If I close my eyes tight, the image of three burning balls, floating, reminds me.


Scott Wolven holds a fellowship in creative writing at Columbia University. In 1998-99, Wolven was awarded the J.R. Humphreys Fellowship in Creative Writing at Columbia, where he studied under the novelist Raymond Kennedy. During Fall Term 1999, Wolven was a Distinguished Visiting Writer at SUNY Oswego as part of the Living Writers Series in the English/Writing Arts Program. His fiction is forthcoming in Permafrost.

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